Lady Bird (2017) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Lady Bird (2017)

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Can you reinvent yourself in your home town?  Christine's trying by insisting everyone call her Lady Bird, auditioning for roles in her school's theatrical crew, taking summer jobs, and making those cautious first steps into dating.  Her mother Marion is doing her best to keep their house afloat while indulging in Lady Bird's new boisterous personality.  Greta Gerwig wrote the screenplay for and directs Lady Bird, which stars Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

The only strong complaint I have against Lady Bird groaned into existence in the opening few minutes.  It was clear this was going to be another coming-of-age film for star Saoirse Ronan, who starred in the coming-of-age film Brooklyn not too long ago and left an indelible mark on me with the violent fable Hanna.  Ronan is positively smashing in Lady Bird but I felt this twinge of wondering when she would be able to break out of the John Cusack-esque loop of coming-of-age films.

That complaint was quickly snuffed out of my mind looking at all that lovely film grain on the screen and listening to the argument escalate between Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf.)  This signaled a different kind of coming-of-age film, one that wasn't interested in capturing the pristine look of adolescence or creating myths out of imagination.  Those have their place, but Lady Bird plays rough and writer/director Greta Gerwig uses the rough texture and rapidly escalating fight between Lady Bird and Marion to set up a tone of turbulence that reaches no easy catharsis.

I may be kinda tired of seeing Saoirse Ronan in coming-of-age roles but she finds a way to make each feel completely different every damn time.

Gerwig does something rare here by presenting a mother/daughter relationship without the endless font of wisdom we've come to expect from the former or the rugged correctness of the latter.  Lady Bird and Marion are both pillars that serve as battering ram and stability with their conversations able to go from near-violent outpourings of grievances to tender love.  The overall color of Lady Bird is desaturated, becoming more vibrant most often when Lady Bird and Marion collide in peace or anger.  There's one lovely conversation where the two are at rest, mom in her blue hospital gown and daughter in her blue towel, with the light gently touching them both as Lady Bird opens up about when the right time for sex is.

Their conversations aren't always so peaceful.  Gerwig really gets at the harm teenagers can cause when they have some of the knowledge but not the experience of their elders.  Lady Bird is often wrong in her expressive bursts of rage, and she's not aware of how much blood she can extract without her mother stepping in to direct some of that back to her.  Whether it comes from a shove or from a shout, there comes a time for many where the parent realizes they can't treat their child like a kid anymore.  For me, it was when I made my dad so angry he shoved me down then I got right up and shoved him back.  Lady Bird's is more dramatic, fitting her personality, with her challenging her mother to tell her how much it cost to raise her and Marion hitting back that Lady Bird will never make enough money to pay her back.

Lady Bird's flair for the dramatic gives Ronan more room to play robust in her seemingly never-ending well of talent.  Of course Lady Bird wants to go to a liberal arts school, the first time she steps onstage for a school audition Gerwig surrounds Lady Bird in darkness so that the energy in her movements feels propulsive.  The frequently dull color palette contributes to this, that Lady Bird is never in her own element and needs a grander stage like a city in order to really find herself.  It's another sign of how she's her mother's daughter with Marion using her husband, and Lady Bird's father, Larry (Tracy Letts - doing Richard Jenkins-level work here) as the stage for her emotional outbursts.

Larry hints at another side of Lady Bird that hits close to home for me in the way depression affects people differently.  There aren't the obvious signs audiences come to expect from those with depression, but they're there.  He has to be snapped back to attention when zoning out in front of the computer, beams with unexpected happiness when getting a hug from Lady Bird, and the way the Letts makes his entire body seem like a lead weight of unhappiness when quiet information receives a loud announcement precisely gets at how personal gains don't make for automatic happiness.  Marion makes the point directly, but its in Letts' performance and similar excellent work from Stephen Henderson that may end up informing audiences about depression better than most pamphlets.

The sudden emotional twists in Lady Bird are navigated exquisitely with virulent disagreements breaking with loving acceptance.

The family drama is so well-done that the moments of comedic excellence bolt out as dramatically as Lady Bird's on-stage work.  She gets into a couple of relationships where the first is neatly summed up by eventual boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges) saying of his family, "Irish-Catholic, it's hard to find someone to date who isn't my cousin."  The biggest laughs came from an unexpected source of energy and confidence for Lady Bird's theatrical crew, making the most of an unexpected situation, and beaming with pride when his work gets rewarded.

Lady Bird doesn't reinvent the coming-of-age formula so much as strip it of the sentimental baggage that comes from adults looking back at the past.  As a result it is far more raw and honest, but no less entertaining, than other coming-of-age films.  Gerwig is already a spectacular talent in front of the camera and Lady Bird shows there may be an untapped reservoir of storytelling in the years to come.

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Lady Bird (2017)

Screenplay written and directed by Greta Gerwig.
Starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

Posted by Andrew

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