Thursday, 22 February 2018

Movie Review: Lady Bird (2018)


The plot: Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a student at a Catholic high school in Sacremento, California. As she weighs up her options for colleges, and deals with her parents Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and Larry (Tracy Letts), she finds herself wanting for an identity of her own. However, with the upcoming hurdles of school, romance and family drama to contend with, she might not have the time to find that identity.


Ronan’s performance is basically everything I expected her turn in Brooklyn to be, only at a far more consistent rate. The result of which I have no hesitation in calling this her best performance to date, the kind that holds its own alongside the myriad of coming-of-age protagonists I’ve seen and will likely go down as one of the definitive portrayals of that subset. This is a word I’m likely to abuse over the course of this review, but this is the kind of natural performance that stories like this require, which only makes it all the more gratifying that it’s being used for a character this authentic. Metcalf as her mother handles a lot of quiet moments very admirably, with her on-screen chemistry with Ronan making for one of the more realistic mother-daughter relationships I’ve covered thus far. Letts as her father works along the same lines, showing great chemistry with his co-stars, and the fact that he is playing a character with clinical depression fills my heart with a lot of gratitude. Seriously, this is a situation where it being downplayed ends up winning the film many points, as it plays rather nicely into the film’s approach with tone and sentiment.

Lucas Hedges as one of Lady Bird’s boyfriends rather embarrassingly easily could have devolved into an objectionable liar who led our protagonist along. However, with how well he channels the very real sense of fear and dread around that decision, he manages to match his efforts in Manchester By The Sea as far as making a rather complicated character work like magic in the final product. Timothee Chalamet as the other boyfriend brings that same sense of realism that he brought to Call Me By Your Name, only putting it towards a character that is remarkably pretentious but in a way that feels like the real attitudes of a rebellious teenager. I grew up an emo kid in high school; I’ve not only met teens like this, I very well could have been one myself. Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend might fit into the DUFF category as far as characterization, but her rapport with Ronan is so good that it still feels right. Bonus points for some possible subtext with her and Lady Bird going to prom together, where the theme of the prom is ‘Eternal Flames’. Given how willing this film is to poke at Bible Belt Americana, I highly approve. Stephen Henderson as one of her teachers gives some heavy emotion in his rare moments and Jason Rodrigues as her brother fits into the family dynamic so well that his ethnicity never even crosses the audience’s mind as needing to be explained in context. Honestly, with Fant4stic still unfortunately fresh in my memory, it’s kind of weird how effortlessly this film managed to pull that one off.

Coming-of-age stories bank on three very distinct notions in order to work: The awkward, the emotional, and the journey. The awkward is the attempts at realism, usually playing off of the main characters being in a state of learning to show them in potentially embarrassing situations. It’s being able to get across that awkwardness without it feeling either forced or too intense to even bear looking at that makes it succeed, something that this film has in abundance. Whether it’s a substitute drama teacher blocking the school play like a football game or Lady Bird turning her teacher’s car into a “Just Married To Jesus” bit of prankery, the occasionally surreal moments only end up feeling so because they reach the point where it’s a brand of everyday surreality. The kind of thing that would feel weird at any point in a person’s life; just that it feels more so because it’s taking place during a particularly turbulent phase within that life.

The emotional is rather self-explanatory: It’s the way in which the story is able to depict its given mood and feels. What makes that particular aspect works so well here is that it never tries to reach for anything bombastic to get its point across. Whatever emotions are brought forward by the actions of the characters, it’s restrained to the point where those emotions end up sneaking up on the audience. There aren’t any earth-shattering revelations that end up completely changing how people interact with each other, and the few moments that come close are treated with an astounding amount of realism. They aren’t handled like the usual excuse for characters to start yelling at each other for audience catharsis; they’re treated like they would if they actually happened. This seems like a weird thing to point out, but keep in mind that the usual method for these kind of stories is to treat these moments like they are life-or-death situations; it’s a side effect of embodying that mindset that everything feels important when you’re at that age and trying to make sense of the world. Instead, they are simply presented as things that actually happen in the real world, and treating them as such makes every emotional turn creep into the hearts of the audience to make them all feel warranted and natural.

And then there’s the journey, the element of the story that shows our main character actually become of-age and find their place in the world. Writer and now-director Greta Gerwig has spoken of this story as having an element of autobiography to it, but not in any specific sense; just that it appeals to what she believes to be truth. That notion definitely comes across in how the specifics of the story present itself. We have the self-named Lady Bird, living in lower-middle class America with all the Bible Belt theatrics and want to impress the socioeconomic higher-ups that comes with it, trying to come to terms with where she goes next and growing up at a time when American society was at its most tense in the wake of 9/11. Imagine trying to weave through that maze and you have an idea of just how confusing things can be, especially since she’s at a point where she barely understands herself, let alone her surroundings.

This speaks to probably the biggest defining trait when it comes to coming-of-age stories: The struggle between figuring out one’s own identity and figuring out how that identity factors into the lives of others. It’s a similar path that The Edge Of Seventeen went down, only this has far less of a sharp edge to it. The intent of this story isn’t to highlight how much the main character has to change and realize the awful person that they really are, as was the case with Seventeen. Instead, we are shown a high-school teen trying to figure out their own identity, combined with coming to terms with the identities of those around her. Because of how much naturalism is afforded the story by the actors, the deeply nostalgic visuals courtesy of cinematographer Sam Levy, and the consistently down-to-earth tone of Gerwig’s direction, it makes that journey feel both significant and realistic. It also helps that the main way in which that search of identity manifests, that being the titular nickname Christine gives herself, is something that shows that the idea of pseudonyms and self-created personas that the Internet has taken and run off with has been around for quite a while. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that my own pen name came about when I was roughly the same age under roughly the same circumstances.

All in all, this is frankly astounding in how it manages to convey such big emotions in such a small frame. The acting is outstanding, giving these very compelling characters all the air they need in their lungs, the writing combines specificity with universal feelings connected to the coming-of-age sub-genre to bring a refreshing amount of realism to the table, and the overall tone stays consistently downplayed for the entire running time, allowing the emotions and ideas within to flow out so smoothly that the feels of the story tend to sneak up on you. Like, one moment, you’re laughing along with the awkwardness, and then the next, you have a serious leak in the tear ducts that started a good few minutes before you even noticed. Knowing how coming-of-age stories tend to bank on big and identifiable emotions, having something this natural-feeling makes for one of the better efforts I’ve seen in this category, certainly one that warrants how much hype has been built up around this film over the last few months.

It ranks higher than The Post, as this works a similar brand of timeless societal commentary but without even trying to shove it in people’s faces. Lady Bird unfolds in its own time and is handled less like drama and more like documentary, making for a far less glaring intent than The Post ultimately came across as. However, as refreshingly solid as this is, it didn’t really change my entire understanding of anything; I may still be at a point in my life where coming-of-age stories resonate, but I think I’ve gotten to the point where there isn’t anything new I can learn from them. The Shape Of Water managed to make me completely shift my understanding of a filmmaker I’ve been on the fence about for a very long time, giving me clarity about his very lengthy and impressive body of work. This film is good, but it’s not quite “I’ve rediscovered a new favourite” kind of good.

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