Lady Bird (2017)
Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig
Cinematographer: Sam Levy
Producer: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, and Evelyn O'Neill
by Jon Cvack
While writing this, Greta Gerwig has started to win award after award for this film - Best Director and Best Film at National Board of Review, Best Film at New York Film Critics, and I’m sure she’ll grab either best screenplay and director at the Independent Spirit Awards (it was the former). I think this is a good movie, providing an intimate portrait in a time of a young woman’s coming of age; from a genre that, at first thought, seems to be lacking and yet when looking back is actually filled with rich material from the female perspective..
Recently I watched Now and Then (‘95) which is the female Stand By Me (‘86), and while not quite as morbid, possesses all of the qualities that make any great coming of age film; capturing a period in time that makes you excited for the summer and all its adventure, all while reflecting on your own teen years and the lessons you learned. Other famous additions include Sixteen Candles (‘84), Heathers (‘88), The Virgin Suicides (‘99), Mona Lisa Smile (‘03), Juno (‘07), and An Education (‘09), all phenomenal films, some told by women, others focused on women, and each providing intimate portraits of women which extend beyond the superficial elements of boys and love; showing a side of life that a male dominated industry doesn’t often get to have. Before Lady Bird, the most recent popular addition is from Lena Dunham and her incredible debut, made for under a $100,000, providing a deeply vulnerable tale of a confused fresh college grad trying to figure out where she’s going, which would pave the way for her hit series Girls.
The last few years have brought awareness to the appalling lack of women and other underrepresented directors and storytellers, and as the market attempts to correct the problem, unfortunately I think that many are using Lady Bird as as indication of how quickly the market has corrected. Unfortunately, for a movie that has adopted many of the tropes from its predecessors I think there’s an overreaction going on, which again, isn’t to say the movie isn’t great, but in terms of being the Best Film and Best Director of the year, seems a bit like an overreaction. And for those who might decry sexism, I’d fully support Kathryn Bigelow and her highly underrated and incredibly important film Detroit (2017) winning any of the top awards (which was ignored entirely), as at least it was removing the curtain on race in America and shedding light on a deeply tragic moment in history, all told by immersing us into the period, looking as though the filmmakers had teleported.
Every year I anticipate the indie-film-that-could, as there’s always one a year which balances comedy with quirky characters and deadpan humor. Little Miss Sunshine (‘06) , 500 Days of Summer (‘09), Ruby Sparks (‘12), Safety Not Guaranteed (‘12)- films that feel as though they were all produced and written by the same filmmaking team who were attempting to replicate and mildly improve upon the previous year’s quirky indie film. These movies aren’t bad so much as feel so manufactured, embodying the alleged essence of “Independent Cinema” at the expense of a unique worldview.
While Lady Bird contains far more heart that most of these films, I just can’t understand why or how this film is celebrated when so many before it have failed to gain the same recognition, and when there were so many other incredible movies by female directors - The Beguiled (in which Sofia Coppola was accused of whitewashing history), Detroit (in which Bigelow was chastised for sensationalizing white on black violence), and Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Here (listed as one of 2018’s best of the year). I can’t help but think this is a different form of discrimination, in which strong female driven stories are overlooked in favor of commercially successful films, making Greta Gerwig’s success fall simply on the fact of making the most accessible, agreeable, and safest film.
Lady Bird is an autobiographical story that takes place in Sacramento in 2002. The title character is Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan who steals the entire show, as a high school senior whose dad has been unemployed for years while her mom Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf) tries to pick up as many shifts as possible at the vet. Nevertheless, the family is poor, nervous about Christine’s desire to go to an East Coast college as her parents can hardly afford a state school as it is.
Lady Bird has a scholarship to a Christian School where she joins the small theater team with her best friend Julie Steffans (Beanie Feldstein; Jonah Hill’s sister) who’s an overweight student who of course has that weirdness required of any best friend in a quirky indie film. Lady Bird begins dating Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges; son of filmmaker Peter Hedges who made What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (‘93) and Pieces of April (‘03), amongst other films), leaving her thrilled to finally have a boyfriend, until she catches him making out with a dude in the bathroom. She then meets the the bad boy in a band Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet) who is introduced reading Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History” and talks about his commitment to abandoning money. Lady Bird ends up losing her virginity to him under the pretense that he too is a virgin, only to learn that he can’t remember how many girls he’s slept with.
As the story often goes, Lady Bird descends further and further into despair, nervous that she can’t even get into the colleges she wants to go to, let alone pay for them, trying to maintain a healthy relationship with her mother, and struggling to maintain her bond with Julie when she befriends the most popular and gorgeous girl in school Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), leading her to start ditching Julie as she starts going out partying with some new friends.
Each of these chapters contains a solid balance between drama and comedy, as for instance, when her ex-boyfriend Danny approaches, breaking down in tears for being caught with a boy, begging her not to tell anyone what happened, or when Lady Bird finally understands that Julie is, in fact, her best friend, and provides one of the most touching moments of the entire film. The problem is most of these conflicts and rights of passage have been done so often before, and while maybe if the film wasn’t being regarded as the Best Film of the Year, I could actually look past the repeat of tropes (it’s what makes the genre stay fresh, as each generation has their own coming of age story), it’s the very fact that it’s being so celebrated when incorporating so many unoriginal elements that I can’t help but wonder why this film when so many others were overlooked in the past? I have a feeling it’s about correction and unfortunately, with so many other great female directed stories this year, it’s a confusing decision and seems to simplify a far more complex problem. A woman shouldn’t receive critical acclaim just because of a financially successful film, especially when so many other female-directed films pushed the audiences in new directions and progressed the format forward.
I could relate to many of these moments, of flirting with the popular crowd and abandoning friendships; of first loves gone awry through confusion and misunderstanding; and the overall alienation one can feel in high school as you’re attempting to understand who you are and where you fit. Similar to Dunkirk (2017) in Epic World War II films, I think Lady Bird could hold up with the best coming of age stories, and maybe its celebration is in some ways a correction to that problem, as so many other great female driven coming of age stories have been abandoned. I just hope that this doesn’t become the norm, where similar to how many Best Actor Oscars Awards (both male and female) are now awarded for an overall career rather than based upon an individual performance, voters will now overcompensate by looking to what’s easy and digestible rather than what’s challenging and progressing the medium forward - which many female filmmakers accomplished this year, though were often castigated for attempting. That’s the larger tragedy.
BELOW: A great scene and my very first introduction to Timothee Chalamet
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