Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig
*** 1/2 (three and a half stars)
The wonder of Greta Gerwig is fully lost upon me.
As I may have stated within the past entries upon this site, I have nothing personal against Ms. Gerwig and I certainly do not know her whatsoever within the real world. But there is just something about her, something that I can't quite place my finger upon that just positively irks me, regardless of her status as a veritable darling of independent cinema and definitely, film critics who have seemed to have fallen for her en masse.
When I first saw her in her breakthrough performance in Writer/Director Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" (2010), I was underwhelmed, a strange feeling as the critical response to the film and exceedingly to her was quite strong. For me, however, I found her performance to be mannered and mumbled and frankly, wholly let down by Baumbach's screenplay which saddled her with a character that I thought to be underwritten.
My severe distaste for Gerwig arrived in two subsequent Baumbach features, the odiously plastic "Frances Ha" (2013) and the even worse "Mistress America" (2015), works that not only received continued critical praise and even higher for Gerwig. For me, both films were precisely the sorts of independent films that people who HATE independent films could conceivably point towards as to reason why they HATE independent films.
Both "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America" each contained an arrogant self-congratulatory tone filled from end-to-end with a self-conscious quirkiness that made every solitary moment feel as if there were quotation marks surrounding them, therefore making every solitary moment completely inauthentic. Everything felt emotionally false and cloaked with the very sort of dreaded hipster irony that sends a negative knee jerk reaction through me. And in the center, sat Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote as well as starred in both films and for me, projected the insufferable persona of a precocious young woman who believed every great thing that was ever said about her and the result was purely oft-putting.
So, you can imagine my feeling when the words "Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig" entered my consciousness. It was just six words that actually spoke to me and said plainly: Stay away.
And yet, here we are together as I share my review of Greta Gerwig's directorial debut "Lady Bird," the very film I felt that I would never see but once again, the euphoric critical praise pushed me through the theater doors. But, this time, dear readers, I will add my praise along with everyone else's as I will always give credit when credit is due. While I am not as over the moon as other reviewers, I am more than happy to announce that Great Gerwig's "Lady Bird" is strong, perceptive, artful, empathetic, richly observed and executed cinema that often feels to even critique Gerwig's past screen persona while essentially delving into the simultaneous boredom, disappointment and existential angst of late adolescence. Has the tide fully turned with my estimation of the talents of Ms. Greta Gerwig? Not so fast. But for now, with "Lady Bird," she has more than earned my high praise.
Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" stars the superb Saoirse Ronan as 17-year-old Christine McPherson who re-christens herself with the self-consciously serous, mysterious and artistic moniker of "Lady Bird," the only name she will answer to, much to the chagrin of her Mother, Marion (an excellent Laurie Metcalf), with whom our heroine shares a most contentious relationship in the family they share with her affable Father (an achingly warm Tracy Letts), her older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott).
Lady Bird, belligerently enduring her senior year at a Catholic high school and desiring nothing more than to leave her hometown of Sacramento for college in the the more urban, exciting utopia of New York City's art and culture scene despite her lack of academic success, spends her crucial year attempting a process of complete re-invention. In addition to plotting her escape from Sacramento for college, Lady Bird joins the school theater department and enjoys minor acts of school rebellion like sneaking communion wafers with her best friend Julie Steffans (Beanie Feldstein). Yet, her year is filled with several rites of passage from first boyfriends and sexual experiences, and dropping old friends for newer, shinier ones as she continues on her path of precarious self-discovery where she is forced to face the best and worst parts of herself all the while fearing that her current station in life may be her final destination.
"Lady Bird" is the precise slice of life motion picture that speaks volumes to my spirit simply because it is a film that depicts life as it is truly and honestly lived, without hyperbole or falsely manufactured situations and characters. With Lady Bird herself at the film's core, we are given a leading character who is distinctly imperfect and therefore, realistic.
In relation to my past emotions concerning Greta Gerwig, "Lady Bird" is blissfully the anti-thesis of her past work as there is not one moment within the film that felt to be contrived, dishonest and most importantly, inauthentic. It is not a film that feels the need to hide behind self-congratulatory hipster irony whatsoever and in fact, it felt at times that Gerwig, through her conception of her titular character, was critiquing that very approach as Lady Bird is often insufferable with her superior attitude towards her family, friends and home town, a superiority complex that Gerwig smartly showcases as being fully housed in a painful insecurity that she will never be able to live up to her own dreams or more crucially, win the approval of her forever disapproving Mother.
I appreciated deeply how Gerwig allowed Lady Bird to often become unlikable, fully serving the idea that we, in the audience, are not necessarily required to like Lady Bird. We are being invited to understand her. To that end, Gerwig has crafted a sharp presentation of the emotional and social juxtapositions that occur during the teen years as we are all desperately trying to fit in and stand out as complete individuals, an emotional tightrope that is compounded for Lady Bird due to the time period of the story's setting.
With an equal sharpness, Gerwig has set "Lady Bird" in the year 2002, with the national wounds of 9/11 so powerfully fresh and the subsequent economic uncertainties increasingly paramount. With this serving as a crucial backdrop, Gerwig is also able to simultaneously remain honest about the realities of being a teenager while also being critical of Lady Bird's narcissism and naivete as she is indeed formulating her socio-political and even spiritual worldview. Lady Bird's aforementioned superior attitude and intense desires for monetary success runs concurrently with her sense of shame with her family's lack of finances as her Mother, a nurse who perpetually works double shifts, becomes the family provider after her Father is downsized and unable to find work.
It is here, and over the course of the film as we are witness to Lady Bird's arrogance, embittered attitude and at times, brutal facades that fly in the face of her family and friends, Gerwig also subtly displays her determination, her resourcefulness, her building work ethic and by film's end, a certain humility, all of which further upends the dynamic between herself and her Mother.
Of course, in this very specific Mother/daughter dynamic, all of the success and blame cannot be laid squarely at Lady Bird's awkward feet. Marion McPherson is a formidable and deeply flawed character, whose seemingly tireless efforts within her community have earned her a most favorable yet hard earned reputation. Even so, Marion is exhausted. Exhausted from work and now being placed in the position of family breadwinner, in addition to being the "responsible" one and family disciplinarian as opposed to her husband Larry's gentler touch with Lady Bird, Marion is growing increasingly exhausted with life.
Yet, we see precisely how Marion and Lady Bird are indeed cut from the same cloth as Marion also wishes for the finer things just as Lady Bird, as evidenced by her Sunday afternoon ritual of visiting homes with the illusion of house hunting, homes that she could never afford. As much as she wishes to elevate her station in life, Marion is pragmatic and realistic to a detrimental fault regarding her relationship with Lady Bird. Where the film's opening sequence deftly showcases how their relationship can switch from communal to fury via hair trigger emotions (and culminating with a surprising blast of slapstick comedy), one especially devastating moment in the film occurs when Lady Bird, after yet another argument, asks her Mother, "Do you like me?' "Of course, I love you," Marion responds. To which Lady Bird corrects her by re-stating her question, which Marion tentatively answers and the effect is stinging.
Faced with such a painful reality, could anyone blame this girl for wishing to cultivate an outsized persona to outshine her feelings of insignificance, to harbor an attitude of such absoluteness over a complete world that she does not fully understand? How much of their respective failings do Marion and Lady Bird see within each other and how much will those failing either help or hinder their continual developments? Will their respective levels of resentment and pride derail their relationship overall?
Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are flawless together, formulating two distinctive characters and their combined history from the inside out, again making every moment feel as bristling and any real world Mother/daughter or even Mother/child relationship anywhere. Yes, I even saw striking elements of my own relationship with my Mother, one that does often feel as if I am still asserting myself as an adult man while my Mother is ready to forever pull rank, have the last word and ensure that I remain a 12 year old. We fight in the same ways. We are equally stubborn and at times, unforgiving yet filled with a primal love.
But I do wish to make a special point to spotlight Tracy Letts as Lady Bird's gracious, patient, supportive and yet unspeakably sad Father, Larry. I loved how Gerwig always kept a very wise, tender-hearted eye upon Larry as he is indeed the glue that holds the emotional bonds of the family together, as he is the one who is seemingly able to tame both Lady Bird and Marion when they each spiral off the rails in anger and recrimination.
Here is where Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird" succeeds at its finest, a film that leaves us with more questions than answers...such is life itself, especially during periods of transformation. Now, as I previously stated, and despite my high praise for the film, my feelings are not nearly as rapturous as a number of the reviews that I have seen. To me, this was not anything revolutionary so to speak, especially as I have watched and loved coming of age films for nearly 40 years, some of them being some of my favorite films, and by comparison and personal tastes, "Lady Bird" does not quite hit those peaks for me. In fact, more recent films like Director Jason Reitman's blistering "Young Adult" (2011) and Writer/Director Kelly Fremon Craig's "The Edge Of Seventeen" (2016) cut closer and even deeper to the bone for me.
And even as compelling Lady Bird is, I did, however, find myself wondering even more about the life and times of her best friend Julie, the affable, chubby, sharp Math student as well as theater student Danny (Lucas Hedges) who is dealing with his own striking personal issues. Certainly Lady Bird is a more flamboyant character than either Julie or Danny but that does not mean that they are any less deserving of some ample screen time. Yet, both of these characters flat out disappeared from the film for long stretches, mostly due to the turns of the narrative, but at times, the means of their absences did feel a tad choppy to me.
But those are minor quibbles for a film that did indeed surprise, entertain and move me considerably more than I ever thought it could. Who knew? Certainly not me. But I'm telling you, if Greta Gerwig leans more heavily towards the authentic than the plastic, as she accomplished so vibrantly with "Lady Bird," she will be a filmmaker I would happily follow anywhere.