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“Lady Bird”: One Last Year in the Nest

Lady Bird!

A rare instance of a Catholic character who doesn’t try winning a film by dismantling the entire church brick by brick. Maybe in the sequel.

Lady Bird could be the name of either a super-hero or a happy animated pet, but in this case this lovely little film’s title has been like a chant among critics who’ve pegged it as a strong contender in the upcoming awards season. Considering how much I enjoyed lead actress Saoirse Ronan in the 2015 Best Picture nominee Brooklyn, I was looking forward to checking this out, and was surprised and delighted when it got a wide release in our area. I appreciated the opportunity to get a head start on my annual Oscars quest and to take a low-key break from this crowded blockbuster season. Contrary to how this year’s MCC reviews have been trending, I do like a broader spectrum of film beyond comics and explosions. Honest! I’ve moaned about it before, and I’ll keep moaning about it till our side of the city finally advances its aesthetics: I’d see more indie films in theaters if we had someplace that played them regularly within twenty miles of home.

Short version for the unfamiliar: Largely inspired by the life of writer/director Greta Gerwig but not 100% beholden to it, Lady Bird covers the entire 2002-2003 senior year in a Sacramento Catholic high school for one Christine McPherson, above-average teenager in a few ways yet normal in so many others. Rebranding herself with the nickname “Lady Bird” is just the start of her attempt to take control and steer her life in the sky-high direction she’s sure it’ll go if everything would just go as she imagines it should. Gerwig tells her story as a chronological series of precisely edited vignettes — some full-length standard scenes, others five-second excerpts sketched in the shortest yet sharpest lines to convey the essence of each moment, from the little things to the major pivot points. Viewers follow along as Lady Bird handles her classes, applies to multiple colleges, discovers her school has a drama club, discovers boys who aren’t yet men, tries on a few “bad girl” mannerisms for kicks, and shares the cheers n’ jeers of life with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein from Neighbors 2).

But one figure stands out above all others in Lady Bird’s life: her mom (Laurie Metcalf, one of the best parts of TV’s Roseanne). Mom is her closest confidante in hard times, her annoying opponent who won’t listen to her, her helpful companion on road trips and shopping excursions, her harshest critic whenever she tries to think for herself, her patron and number one fan, and her passive-aggressive archnemesis when she least expects it. They’re the kind of mother/daughter duo who can begin a conversation bonding over something awesome, let it devolve into petty squabbling within minutes, then turn on a dime when they’re both distracted by another cool thing. But as Lady Bird accumulates new experiences and begins pushing her boundaries throughout the school year, the more she makes her own choices without waiting for Mom’s approval — especially when those choices might wallop their strained family budget — the tougher things get between the two.

Hey, look, it’s that one actor!: Lady Bird’s dad is playwright Tracy Letts (Bug, August: Osage County), a friendly but passive presence whose unsorted issues force Mom to become head of household and keep things running in between nursing shifts. Lady Bird’s forays into the world of dating split her year between two suitors. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) is the drama club costar who’s all smiles and faith and upscale family living. Timothée Chalamet (from this season’s other buzz-filled feature Call Me By Your Name) is the bad boy in a band who’s all about his super environmentally sound eating habits, his rejection of shallow corporate constructs foisted upon us all by The MAN, and his tattered copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States.

Odeya Rush (The Giver) is the cool rich girl that Lady Bird later befriends for the wrong reasons. Among the gregarious Catholic teaching staff is Stephen McKinley Henderson (wonderful last year in Fences) as the minister who’s also the drama teacher. Brian McDorman, former star of TV’s Limitless, is the math teacher Julie reeeaaallly likes. Character actress Lois Smith (Helen Hunt’s aunt from Twister) is the headmistress who may stun some viewers with the revelation that not all nuns are stuck in the 1800s, not all of them are abusive monsters who wield a ruler like a mace, and some of them can take a joke.

I’m ashamed I failed to recognize Andy Buckley — a.k.a. David Wallace from The Office — in a couple of scenes as Julie’s mom’s boyfriend.

Meaning or EXPLOSIONS? For me the teeter-totter relationship between Lady Bird and her mom was fascinating in all its vicissitudes, but Our Heroine, her friends, and the viewer learn other lessons along the way:

* Sometimes it can take a while to find out what we’re really good at.
* Paying a lot of attention to a thing is often not a sign of disdain for it.
* Adults may not always know everything, but teens really really don’t know everything.
* Money isn’t everything, especially in determining your relationships, but it can be a major source of conflict.
* Despite what other movies tell you, sex also isn’t everything, and is a leading source of confusion and stupid choices among humans.
* Gaslighting is real, hilarious to watch from a distance when some dumb young male tries it in spectacularly awful fashion, but not remotely hilarious when you’re the target.
* Depression is real, and a struggle for many adults of all ages, not just teens.
* Out-of-state colleges are expensive as heck.
* Adoption is cool, but sibling rivalry in blended families can get rough.
* Corollary: don’t be racist to your adopted nonwhite sibling, you jerk.
* Sometimes there’s a grain of truth in the things being shouted at you at top volume.
* But don’t let your last conversation with someone you love be a shouting match.

Nitpicking? I usually avoid films where “sexual awakening” comes to the fore, which means I bypass 80% of the Criterion Collection on their half-off sales, but Lady Bird‘s lone qualifying encounter of that sort (clothed, at that) is realistically short and ultimately humiliating, so it’s hard to count off points. In a similar vein, the language gets slightly harsher as Lady Bird’s attitudes and social circles shift, but in context it reminds me of a lot of kids I knew, including myself in a bygone phase.

Every time a TV is on, it’s tuned to news footage of the Iraq War, which I’m sure we all remember is the only thing we watched from 2002 to 2003. Maybe the explosions are symbolic of the turmoil in Lady Bird’s life? Or this was Gerwig’s way of fulfilling a mandatory explosions quota to get the film a wider release?

So what’s to like? Lady Bird is a tight 93-minute odyssey through an unglamorized life, hitting a lot of the same high notes and brick walls that we olds know too well and try not to smirk at when we see teens living through it as if they’re the very first humans ever to put up with these very real, often excruciating, yet nearly universal anguishes. Ronan, again running an emotional gambit as she did in Brooklyn, aptly demonstrates the inherent perils that precocious kids face when they realize they’re no longer superstars in their own stories. Bonus points to Beanie Feldstein for keeping up and putting up with her, and I demand to see Laurie Metcalf grab herself some awards soon as the mom who has a hard time staying friends with a daughter who’s at least as stubborn as she is.

Gerwig and editor Nick Houy have the confidence to know exactly how long to hold each story beat, when to let us sidle along with the cast for a while, and when to keep it quick and efficient, like an Elmore Leonard story minus the guns. Where lazy crews on other movies stitch together eighteen cuts to help a single actor faking their way through one beat of quote-unquote “action”, here every snippet, every glimpse into another day with Lady Bird is an artfully whittled slice of life that interlocks with the big picture exactly where it should to create the kind of meaningful, intricate collage that a young artist might appreciate all the more when they’re their parents’ age, ready to stand back and see how it all fit together.

How about those end credits? No, there’s no scene after the Lady Bird end credits, though I thought it odd the Special Thanks section ended with shout-outs to Levi’s and six different shoe manufacturers. Fashion wasn’t even a major plot point, unless you count one scene of trying on used prom dresses.

Also, anyone who’s not a showtune trivia expert can verify from the music credits that the school’s big fall performance was Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, judging by the number of songs used from it. I’d never heard of it, but if Fox or the other broadcast networks need fodder for more live TV events, I bet the rights are totally available.

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