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Editorial


Front Page - Friday, December 8, 2017

Critic's Corner: Cast, director help ‘Lady Bird’ soar




You can’t live with some people, but you wouldn’t want to live without them.

This was my thought as “Lady Bird,” a comedy-drama written and directed by Greta Gerwig, abruptly cut to the end credits.

I imagine something different passed through the minds of the others in the audience. “Lady Bird” is that kind of movie – layered and engaging. It’s also funny and moving.

I know it sounds trite to explain it this way, but yes, it will make you laugh and it will make you cry.

When it ended, I issued a quiet protest – a groan the guy two seats down from me could have heard – because I wanted it to continue. I would have sat there all night watching Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a teenager on the cusp of adulthood, do her best to find her footing in life.

Christine is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento in 2002. She has a turbulent relationship with her mother, is best friends with an unpopular girl and seems to be just tolerating things until she can graduate and go to college – far away from Sacramento.

There’s a simmering frustration in Christine that bubbles easily to the surface when she interacts with her mother. The opening scene is a perfect microcosm of their relationship, with the two of them being reduced to tears as they listen to “Grapes of Wrath” on tape while driving and then unwisely having a conversation.

Their chat quickly devolves into an acrimonious verbal tennis match, with both lobbing returns over a towering brick wall rather than a net. The source of their conflict comes from their stations in life: the mother has made all her mistakes and is beaten down and weary, and the daughter has yet to stumble in life and is eager to grab the future by the horns.

The scene ends with a surprise I won’t ruin except to say it made me think, “I’m going to like this movie.”

“Lady Bird” follows Christine as she muddles through this transitional stage in her life and comes of age. She and her best friend sign up for a school play when neither of them should be let anywhere near a stage, she meets a boy and thinks she’s fallen in love and she applies to a variety of east coast schools in the hopes of getting as far away from everything she thinks she hates.

Two things impressed me as I watched “Lady Bird.” One was how much I liked Christine. She might sound like a bratty, rebellious teenager, but she’s not. She’s just lost in the way most people are at that age.

Saoirse Ronan brings Lady Bird to life with an enticing combination of humor, wide-eyed curiosity and exasperation. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, not because she’s beautiful but because she’s captivating in every other way.

The other thing that impressed me was Gerwig’s work as a filmmaker, both on the page and from behind the camera. Her experience as a playwright and screenwriter shines through in her dialogue, which sounds as though Gerwig lifted it from the pages of her life. (She grew up in Sacramento.)

There’s an honesty to her writing that’s relatable but still leaves room for the kind of elevated realism that makes comedies fun:

“Your mom’s tits are totally fake!”

“She made one bad decision at 19!”

“Two bad decisions!”

Gerwig’s character work is deft and insightful. She chooses her words and her moments carefully and uses each one to paint a picture of a protagonist defined by naivete and hope and adults whose expressions carry every disappointment and heartbreak they’ve experienced.

Gerwig’s inexperience as a director, however, is nowhere to be seen. Although she’d co-directed one film before taking on “Lady Bird” alone, she had no real foundation for being this good at making a movie. Not only are her instincts for balancing drama and comedy superb, her eye for images is deeply cinematic.

Watch for the subtle ways Gerwig uses framing and editing in a critical scene near the end of the film to draw parallels between Lady Bird and her mother. Her choices as a filmmaker give this and other scenes an emotional thrust that cuts deep.

Also impressive is the level of acting. It helped that Gerwig populated her movie with actors like Laurie Metcalf (“Rosanne”), who delivers a standout performance as Lady Bird’s mother. But listen to the way Ronan and Metcalf’s dialogue overlaps and their precise timing from line to line.

Sure, it takes experienced actors to pull off that kind of chatter while investing a scene with the right feelings, but it also takes a director who knows how to pull those performances out of her actors while capturing it on film in a way that will speak to the audience. There’s none of the awkwardness that’s often evident in films by inexperienced directors.

Perhaps my favorite thing about “Lady Bird” is how it doesn’t resolve every character’s dilemma or tie up things with a neat bow. But, much like life, if we look hard enough, the answers to the most pressing questions are there.