Thursday, November 30, 2017

Lady Bird

LADY BIRD (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Strong-willed high school senior Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has a good idea of what she wants and is willing to pursue it tenaciously in the coming of age comedy LADY BIRD. Christine decides she would rather be known as Lady Bird and insists upon being called by the name she gives herself. When a boy captures her attention, be it sweet fellow thespian Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges) or budding anarchist Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet), she focuses on him like a sniper. While she has a deep connection with best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), that relationship is susceptible to Lady Bird’s self-interested choices causing a rift.

Inevitably Lady Bird’s biggest conflicts are with her loving but equally resolute mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who is quick to call her out for real and perceived shortcomings. Lady Bird’s dad Larry (Tracy Letts) is a soft touch, so Marion’s demanding nature helps to balance the parental qualities their daughter needs as she moves toward independence, self-sufficiency, and, if Lady Bird has her wish, far away from Sacramento.

Greta Gerwig is already established as a talented actress with a flair for comedy. She co-wrote and starred in the exquisite FRANCES HA, and with LADY BIRD she expands upon her gifts in character creation as the writer and director. This sharply observed film understands the hair trigger emotional state of adolescence, particularly in that transitional period from high school to college and youth to young adulthood. The highs are higher, and the lows are lower. Lady Bird’s first kiss with Danny brings her the kind of overwhelming joy she can’t contain, but she plummets in an instant from that peak moment to the bottom of the valley when her mother chastises her for not putting away her clothes. Walking home alone after the kiss Ronan shows how Lady Bird is so happy she screams, covers her mouth, and doubles over, as if it’s only polite not to beam too much. That her unaware mother won’t let the feeling linger only increases the injury.

The loving tension in families, specifically between mothers and daughters, is central to LADY BIRD. The film opens with Lady Bird and Marion sleeping face to face in the same hotel bed and then bonding while listening to THE GRAPES OF WRATH on tape on the long drive home from college visits. They have a tight connection, yet that also means they can expertly press one another’s buttons and obliterate the peace that existed one second earlier. Lady Bird and Marion exchange cutting remarks while shopping for a dress in a thrift shop, but when Marion pulls the perfect one off the rack, they both light up like the noon sun.

Coming of age films are inclined to empathize more with the person growing up, but in LADY BIRD Gerwig fairly distributes the sense of who’s right and who’s wrong. Lady Bird can be an outspoken, self-centered brat, and Ronan leans in very humorously to the character’s attitude. She’s also more vulnerable than her exterior tends to reveal. Marion is tough, probably in an overcompensatory manner, but Gerwig’s screenplay and Metcalf’s performance detail how her sternness with Lady Bird comes from a good place and can be necessary.

LADY BIRD is a very funny movie with its witty dialogue and retroactively embarrassed observations of high school. The theater rehearsal scenes are the sort of thing that students would find fun in the moment and be mortified by in retrospect, especially if anyone not involved saw. The film also has a big heart for the complexity and challenges in being a teen and a parent, even if sometimes you can’t see the bigger picture until it’s in the past.

Grade: A

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