Friday, 2 March 2018


I remember seeing a parody video, a trailer for a generic American independent film, and I was reminded of it at some point while I watched Lady Bird. Do not get me wrong, Lady Bird is an entertaining, sometimes piercing and occasionally poignant coming-of-age film, about a high school girl in Sacramento. Her confusions are tied up in any number of things: romance, high school (a Catholic school to which she's been sent because she needs structure) and a middle-class life  which seems rather too strained because, as we later discover, her father is out of work with little prospect of finding new work. So far, so standard. It is the first film as a director for Greta Gerwig, who is known for comedy, but here keeps a strong hand on the real drama, as well as providing the laughs. And as one often expects from actor-directed films, she offers great opportunities for actors: Saoirse Ronan as the eponymous self-titled teenager is completely convincing, alternately wise and foolish, understanding and lost. She plays smart and attractive without having to strive for the cliche of ugly duckling beautiful, which is one reason why this seems so real. And Laurie Metcalf as her hard-working, hyper-critical mother is outstanding in an outstanding performance that also should be flashy enough to get a supporting actress Oscar.

Because at heart this is a movie about mothers and daughters. It's easy to intuit that at least part of Lady Bird's trouble is due to her mother's detachment from her struggles, and Ronan conveys with great subtlety her yearning to have that vacuum filled. There is a moment, shopping for a prom dress, that almost cuts through, but Metcalf is astute in the way she casually stops such a movement in its tracks.

There is also an element of class here: Metcalf also subtly conveys her frustration of having to be the family's main support: nursing is a hard way to do that. It's a frustration that things have not worked out the way they should have, and it plays well against Tracy Letts' superb take as the father. You don't get Oscar nominations for playing nice guys, but he does it well, knowing that he is not a Jim Backus figure (Rebel Without A Cause) but a sort of too-light anchor. Letts, who also plays a nice guy in The Post, is actually playing slightly against type here--he's usually cast as a nice guy who turns out through weakness or hidden evil to be a villain, the kind of thing Michael Murphy, for example, used to do.

Beyond that, the elements transcend indy standard, they are familiar to the point of cliche, although the first love turning out to be gay is a modern variation.  The rebellion at the strict school, the change in personality to join the 'in crowd' of ironic rebels, leaving her overweight friend adrift, the efforts to seem richer than she is, the discovery of the power of friendship at the prom, all made this feel like a northern California inversion of Clueless: though honestly I heard a Very Serious BBC radio programme discuss the film as if it were set in the same California, thus missing one of the film's other familiar tropes.

Because when Lady Bird goes back east to college, my first reaction was to wonder how she got herself a scholarship to NYU if her studies, and her efforts at theatre, were so slipshod. They do say her test scores were good. But which nuns or teachers were writing her recommendations? Anyway, despite a really touching scene when mom misses her send-off, handled beautifully by all three actors, we then get to the Big Apple and the discovery that there is indeed, as Glenda the Good Witch reminded us 70 years ago, no place like home. Even when home is Sacramento.

As I said, this is a very well acted, and smartly made film, and I enjoyed it, though not to best of the year level. Perhaps its Oscar strength is that it might be thought to applying a millennial spin to these somewhat familiar tropes. And those are the voices Oscar is determined to begin hearing nowadays. Maybe some of the older members were expecting a bio-pic about the LBJ White House.

No comments :