Thursday, November 30, 2017

Lady Bird: Truly soars

Lady Bird (2017) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rated R, for profanity and sexual candor

By Derrick Bang

Well into writer/director Greta Gerwig’s accomplished filmmaking debut, the story’s protagonist is complimented — by her high school counselor — on the depth of feeling she expresses, in a college application essay, for the city in which she has grown up: a city from which she’s eager to escape.

As the high school senior prom approaches, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, left) brings her
mother (Laurie Metcalf) along when she tries out a series of dresses: an excursion that
takes place amid the organized clutter of Sacramento's massive Thrift Town store.
The city is Sacramento, where Gerwig herself grew up, and her film exhibits the same reverence. Indeed, I doubt Sacramento ever again will be the subject of such a heartfelt cinematic valentine.

Lady Bird can’t help feeling semi-autobiographical; Gerwig’s characteristic personality shines throughout, easily recognized from her starring roles in quirky indie dramedies such as Lola Versus, Frances Ha and Mistress America. Her filmmaking debut is both an engaging and painfully raw coming-of-age saga, and a respectful appreciation for the environment that shaped her as an artist.

A kiss on Sacramento’s cheek, and an earnest Thank You.

But that’s merely the narrative portion of Gerwig’s film. She also deserves credit for coaxing persuasively intimate performances from her stars: most notably Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, who deliver one of the most tempestuous, complicated and deeply loving mother/daughter relationships ever depicted on camera.

The year is 2002, as the United States enters a new national mindset in the wake of 9/11. We meet Ronan’s Christine McPherson on the eve of her senior year in high school, which she’s horrified to discover will be spent at a Catholic school. She’s a rebellious young adult, with strikingly dyed hair and an insistence that everybody — even family members — refer to her as “Lady Bird”: a name she has given herself, as opposed to the one that was thrust upon her.

She has little use for her post-college brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott), both of whom share the small, cramped house which is all that Lady Bird’s parents — Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and Larry (Tracy Letts) — can afford. Lady Bird is deeply ashamed of living on “the wrong side of the tracks”; it’s one of the innumerable “slights” that she takes personally, and for which she — unjustly, and immaturely — blames her parents.

She’s a teenager, in every horrific sense of the term: stubborn, selfish, shallow, spiteful and short-tempered.

The power of Gerwig’s narrative comes from Lady Bird’s various relationship dynamics, most notably with her mother. They’re constantly at each other, because (we immediately perceive) they’re so different, and yet so much alike. Marion is a control freak who tends to lead with criticism, rather than compliments: somebody who missed the memo about saying nothing at all, if you have nothing nice to say.

Marion’s shouting matches with her daughter are nuclear, the other family members stunned into a shocked silence that matches our own, as witnesses to something that feels so uncomfortably real, that we feel like voyeurs. And yet when Lady Bird is genuinely distressed, she instinctively turns to her mother for comfort ... which Marion grants, as best she can, without a moment’s hesitation. Such moments can’t help being heartwarming.

It’s an extremely delicate balancing act, and Metcalf pulls it off brilliantly, with nary a misstep.

Larry, in contrast, is the calm in the storm: the quieter parent more willing to tolerate his daughter’s eccentricities. Calling him “the good guy” isn’t fair to Marion; Letts simply takes a different approach. He knocks at Lady Bird’s closed bedroom door, and she replies, “Come in, Dad.”

“How did you know it was me?” he asks, upon entering.

“You knocked,” she replies, with a wistful smile that he reciprocates: another in what we immediately recognize as a series of bonding moments. Gerwig’s script nails so many of these intimate family-dynamic touches.

By her very nature, Lady Bird’s idiosyncrasies make her a school misfit destined never to hang with the cool kids, but she does have a longtime BFF: Julie (Beanie Feldstein), a jovial co-conspirator similarly sidelined because of — she fears — her plus-size. The two girls have a warm, mutually devoted “Me and you against the world” bond that is characterized by mild acting-out pranks and impishly naughty bursts of vulgarity.

Feldstein nails this role, imbuing Julie with an easy, graceful charm that is offset by an undertone of vulnerability. The latter proves important later in the story, when Lady Bird betrays that trust in a very high school manner, after succumbing to the Dark Side of the between-class social pecking order.

On a minor — but also significant — note, Lady Bird forges an unlikely alliance with the aforementioned school teacher and counselor: Sister Sarah Joan, played to caring, compassionate and understated perfection by Lois Smith. She’s never quite what we’d expect from a Catholic nun: She’s the one who suggests that the restless, unfocused Lady Bird try out for the school musical ... which we know (from Gerwig’s own personal history) will prove an important catalyst for the wayward girl’s need for self-expression.

The play is Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, an apt choice and (not coincidentally) Gerwig’s favorite musical, for — in her words — its “sense of time slipping away, the future charging into the present, the bonds of childhood as only living on in memory.” But it’s key here for introducing Lady Bird to co-performer Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges, also currently on view in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri).

Danny is the first serious crush: the ideal, handsome boyfriend who comes complete with a “normal” loving family that lives in a gorgeous house in the upscale East Sacramento neighborhood dubbed The Fabulous 40s (referencing boundaries bordered by 40th through 49th streets). Hedges plays Danny as intelligent, sensitive and clearly fond of Lady Bird: an enticing yin/yang contrast to her free-spirited arrogance.

At the same time, Lady Bird can’t help being fascinated by Kyle (Timothée Chalamet, appropriately cool and mysterious), the sort of brooding, dark-garbed musician who proves irresistible to women. Lady Bird’s bond with Danny is love — perhaps, more accurately, the love of being in love — whereas the attraction to Kyle is pure lust.

These swirling interpersonal dynamics take place against Lady Bird’s determination to get accepted into a prestigious East Coast university — a goal that seems highly unlikely, given her far less than stellar grades — rather than having to “settle” for UC Davis, which would leave her in undesirably close proximity to her family. (Needless to say, the latter line gets a hearty laugh from Northern California audiences.)

Ronan carries the film with the natural, graceful assurance she recently brought to her Oscar-nominated role in 2015’s Brooklyn. Despite all of Lady Bird’s many character flaws, Ronan keeps her appealing, with a blend of spunk, sparkle and angst-y desperation. She’s too achingly familiar and fragile to be casually dismissed as an ungrateful bee-yatch; Ronan never lets the surface monster overwhelm the anguished soul inside.

Establishing shots, sprinkled throughout the many narrative arcs, paint a charming portrait of Sacramento that can’t help feeling retro, as if willingly stuck in the vibe of an era with more color and personality: the iconic Tower and Crest movie theaters, the mural outside the American Market & Deli near Sutter’s Fort State Historic Park, Gunther’s ice cream parlor, the Pasty Shack, Club Raven, Cookie’s Drive-In and — most notably — the glowing Tower Bridge.

The retro atmosphere is enhanced by cinematographer Sam Levy, who favors slight graininess and a color palette that emphasizes earth tones and soft primary colors (particularly the placid blue of Danny’s house). Jon Brion’s similarly gentle underscore is complemented by carefully placed songs such as Dave Matthews’ “Crash Into Me,” Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” and Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River.”

Gerwig orchestrates these elements — and handles her cast — with a skill that already has earned her a Best Director award from the National Board of Review, and I’ve no doubt many more accolades will follow. Lady Bird is everything that a modest but no less accomplished indie should be: It resonates.


  1. I love to read your reviews carefully AFTER I've seen the movie and glancingly BEFORE I've seen it. I loved this movie more than I thought I would. Thank you for helping me relive it.

  2. That's a good way to handle reviews. And yes; it's a charming little film that kinda sneaks up on one.