Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: Lady Bird

Seventeen is a shaky bridge. We cross it juggling friendships, sex, drugs and education and hope we can get to the other side before everything crumbles and collapses. Christine has given herself the name Lady Bird which she will take out of her small town to a big city University on the east coast and there to a dazzling creative life beyond. Well, that's the plan. When she tells her mother any of this she gets a blast of verbal violence so powerful it makes her leap out of a moving car.

At school she's left everything too late. It's her final year and her indifference to her studies has meant that her dreams of a scholarship are routinely dashed by everyone who has the figures. Her father is laid off so the money will not be there for the humblest of higher ed solutions. A flirtation with theatre performance leaves her flat and an attempt at upgrading her friendship circles to a higher social stratum has a queasy end. When losing her virginity is disappointing her beau consoles her by saying she has a lifetime of unremarkable sex to look forward to. Yes, she has to get out but that just seems to diminish daily.

I'll admit it took some convincing for me to buy a ticket to this one. The trailer looked iffy and the pedigree was dodgy but too many critical responses were intriguing rather than just glowing. I felt like I was the only person on earth who hated Frances Ha. That indulgence-begging grind swore me off its director for life and I winced to see its star in the cast lists of other films. Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are life as well as creative partners. Baumbach is also a serial offender in my mind by his frequent collaborations with the dependably off-putting Wes Anderson. What I feared was that Lady Bird was going to be a cover version of that.

It wasn't just the critics. It was also Soairse Ronan. The veteran screen actor at twenty-five is consistently impressive. The only time (this might make me sound obsessive) she hasn't been was in Grand Budapest Hotel where she was really only decorative. But that wasn't her fault. Here she must make a difficult character appeal to us without asking for our indulgence. Lady Bird is always a daydream away from chaos but unlike Frances Halliday and her aggressive pointlessness her dangers are not unbelievably self destructive. This is a fine blend of assured and detailed performance, writing that stops short of self-consciousness and a consistent warmth guiding the helm. Few will agree with me but I see this as Gerwig's redemption.

This extends to pretty much all the characters who get more than two lines. The alpha chick of the school is not a cardboard bitch but a life system around a selfish and ridiculing teenage centre. Lady Bird's granite mooded mother does have the big heart that others claim for her. The nuns and priests of her Catholic school are as likely to be benign as severe. The sex and drugs and rock and roll of the teens plays with neither sernsationalism nor cuteness. The priest directing the school play like a football game isn't just quirky it's funny, genuinely belly-laughing funny. Seeing an airliner takeoff from the window rather than the ground brings us gently in to where we should be. It feels real. So far from the feared Frances Ha origins episode, the care and craft of Lady Bird gives us a recognisable experience.

I'm not nostalgic as a rule, preferring to gather the circumstances around a revisited life event if only to stop myself from art directing it to make it comfy. I don't think it was nostalgia here but I was frequently moved to ride along with Lady Bird as she understands how she's wasted her schooling, learning to drive, investing such gravity into the escape of university, getting to the cooler parties, having tough conversations with her parents (played so beautifully by Tracey Letts and Laurie Metcalf) and navigating that fraught last year of high school. A lot of films have tried to capture this. Some work efficiently (The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and others poison your life force (Rushmore) but this one, despite a protagonist of the other sex and over twenty years beyond my year twelve, is the first that really felt right, the first that felt exactly as I felt it.

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