Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Lady Bird, Lady Bird, Fly Away From Home



No, I’ve never lived in Sacramento, nor did I attend a Roman Catholic girls’ high school. (As if!) Still, Lady Bird scored with me as it’s been scoring with audiences everywhere because it contains the ring of truth. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is not fancy filmmaking, technically speaking. But it’s wonderfully secure in its handling of actors who are far more three-dimensional than the comic-book cut-outs we’re using to seeing at the movies.


Gerwig is a rising young actress, known for her appearance in 20th Century Women and the title role in Frances Ha (for which she co-wrote the screenplay with then-beau Noah Baumbach). Though she grew up in Sacramento, California and attended the all-girl St. Francis High School, she has insisted that the rambunctious, rebellious lead character in Lady Bird is not a portrait of the artist as a young woman. Still, it’s clear from her conversation with host Peter Sagal on my favorite radio quiz show, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, that the line between Lady Bird and the seventeen-year-old Greta is a blurry one. Gerwig describes her younger self as much more mild-mannered and well-behaved than Lady Bird. In the course of a fight with her mother, Greta certainly never jumped out of a moving car. (In her case, the car was only idling.) It’s true, though, that she and her mom waged epic battles, which ended as quickly as they started, because beneath it all they felt an intense love for one another.


Actors who move into the director’s chair tend to be especially adept at gathering terrific casts. Gerwig has certainly done that here. Her leading lady is Saoirse Ronan, the gifted young (23-year-old) Irish actress who nabbed a supporting actress Oscar nomination (for Atonement) when she was just thirteen. Adept at accents and at complex characterizations, Ronan finally played an Irish lass not far removed from her own age and personality type in 2015’s Brooklyn, for which she was deservedly named a best actress nominee. Oscar will probably single her out again this year for her unforgettable high-schooler in Lady Bird. Before I saw the film, I assumed she’d be playing the school rebel, someone abrasive and angry, a regular flame-thrower. Well, yes, but Christine McPherson (who insists Lady Bird is her given name, because she gave it to herself) can also be soft, vulnerable, and unexpectedly sweet.
 
Lady Bird is attracted to two very different high school boys, played by rising stars Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name),with unpredictable results. She has a chunky best friend who gets good grades; then there’s the richer, cooler girl she aspires to be. She adores her warm-hearted sad sack of a father, played by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tracy Letts. But her most complex emotions are directed toward her mother, Marion, played by Broadway actress Laurie Metcalf in a performance that pundits are saying is ripe for Oscar love. Marion is very much at the heart of the McPherson family: she’s hard-working, practical, and a great friend to those in need. As keeper of the family’s finances, she’s tight with a dollar, so of course she has no use for Lady Bird’s dream of getting out of Sacramento (which she deems the boring mid-west of California) and heading for a pricey east coast college. Nor do the two agree about clothes or about pretty much anything else. Still, the love is there, bubbling up when least expected.


Lady Bird is a small movie that makes the most of what it’s got. To which I say Hallelujah, and Amen.
 

 

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