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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

'Lady Bird', magic at the "wrong side of the tracks"

Lady Bird

Another high school movie about coming of age? Another “indie” film, with the hype this time arriving in her scriptwriter and debuting director, Greta Gerwig (fifth woman in history to be nominated in the latest category at the Oscars), the queen of low-budget cinema? Well, the answer is yes, if you are only interested in the surface and the headlights of things. But if you are willing to go further and allow yourself to get haunted by top-notch acting and storyline (yes, there’s still hope for screenwriting!), “Lady Bird” could be your movie. So, let me introduce you to Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson...

Effervescent, charismatic, obstinate-to-the-point-of-rebellion and quirky (she gave a name to her by herself, to begin with) 17-year-old Christine, played majestically by Ronan Saoirse, is a teenager in the verge of becoming an adult. She is a senior student in a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California (Gerwig’s hometown), facing her last year of college and the big decisions in the making and ahead of her. She dreams of getting out of “The Midwest of California”, as she called it, aiming for higher expectations, adventures, an artistic future, savoir-vivre and social refinement. Opportunity and struggle are just behind the corner...

Because Gerwig allow us to follow Lady Bird in that last year, one that looks as crucial as well as full of experiences for our leading character: romance, a play, friendships that allow her to be part of the coolest gang of the school, while she maintains a constant battle with her mother Marion (striking performance by Laurie Metcalf, who should have won the Oscar, imo), who wants her to apply for local universities instead, settling her for more modest and less expensive goals. As I said, it looks like a simple and unsurprising development for a movie on the surface. And it’s true there won’t be any groundbreaking revelations, unexpected twists or revolutionary sci-fi scenes. But who needs them when you are rewarded with such an empathic, extremely well crafted, detailed and touchingly rounded film.

The amount of standout conversations (or discussions, or just one-liners), matchless scenes or moments that are going to captivate the viewer in ‘Lady Bird’ is plain impressive. In some sort of way (not comparing the narratives or the tone, very different) is that sort of excellency you find in Richard Yates, Carson McCullers, Anne Beattie or Raymond Carver's writing, that sort of “can't be better said/summed up/encapsulated than this”. I’m thinking on how that dress searching, with mother and daughter arguing again, is resolved. Or the one when both are sharing the bathroom and Lady Bird asks about her father’s depression. Or the first scene when his father drives her to the school (arresting Tracy Letts). Or how he is “located” in the room and how he behaves when the big fight arrives between mother and daughter explodes. I could go on and on... That sort of “screen magic”, aside from pure talent, of course, has to come from Gerwig’s knowing exactly, from the heart, what she wanted her characters to say and, what’s even more mesmerizing, being able to translate from the paper to the screen. It’s obvious this story is an extremely personal, intimate one… one that a masterful director has transformed into something universal.

The other major factor that can’t be praised enough is how Gerwig deals with what’s clearly the most important bond that’s about to be cut with Lady Bird’s leaving home: family. An imperfect, flawed, modest, all flesh and bones (so refreshing) family. Money is a real, burdening issue (how many American movies deal with that?), one that curses the despaired yet kindhearted father, torments the quibbling mother and frustrates our main character, surrounded by well-off classmates at high school, uncertain of her future because of that lack of resources. And with that comes the relationship between mother and daughter, easily among the most fascinating ever shown in a film. The mixture between intimate connection and tough love, Christine’s need of validation from her mother and Marion’s constant pressure towards her daughter looking to help her to be the “best version of herself” is just mindblowing, impossible not to get emotional as the movie conclusion approaches.

On the not so positive side, several secondary characters and plots are not that remarkable. For example, one can argue the “romantic quests” within the movie could be more developed, as Kyle (played by Timothée Chalamet) is nothing more than a caricature, and Danny (I’m seeing Lucas Hedges a lot recently, another great performance) is somewhat lost as the movie advances when her role deserved more. Same applies to the new friendship with the posher girl of her institute, although it's true allows the director to talk about class angst. Or that the head nun of the high school is “too nice” to be credible. But these underachievements are not that relevant to undermine the film. No, ‘Lady Bird’ might not be reinventing the wheel, not even reformulating the teenager coming of age story. As a matter of fact, that's her only real flaw, having the feeling of being in front of a story you have seen several times already. But to be honest, not many come to my mind as fulfilling, heartwarming, smart and moving as ‘Lady Bird’.

SCORE: 7,75/10

1 comment:

  1. As a fan of Ms. Gerwig's mumblecore performances, I was not surprised when I thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful, gentle, honest film. It is as much of an ode to a hometown as it is a remembrance of the emotional ups and downs of late adolescence. Written from the depths of experience, the truth on display is what some who did not like film may find off-putting. However, it is Ms. Gerwig's courage to put the truth front and center that makes this a masterpiece film. This is the kind of writing and directing that one would expect from a mature filmmaker at the peak of her directing career, not as her debut. As an actress, Ms. Gerwig has earned her "shot" at being given the opportunity to direct. Let's hope that she will continue to be respected for her vision and dedication to excellence in storytelling.
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