Friday, December 1, 2017

Lady Bird

Director Greta Gerwig as an actress in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012)

LADY BIRD              B                    
USA  (93 mi)  2017  d:  Greta Gerwig                       Official Facebook

Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.
—Joan Didion

Not sure why critics have gone gaga over this film, as it’s not nearly as insightful or as skillful as Kogonada’s Columbus (2017), for instance, another low-budget indie film taking place in a small town, which simply resonates with greater depth and purpose, while Gerwig’s film feels more smug and self-centered, overly satisfied with itself, where humor is more prominently featured than most dramas, with much of this feeling like bits written for SNL comedy sketches, never getting as deeply under the surface as some of the best coming-of-age dramas.  Perhaps in a regressive historical era, people are thankful for splashes of humor, giving this more credit than it deserves, though it’s as much a comedy as it is a drama.  Typically, comedies are underrated, never given the credit that dramas generate, but this seems to be the exception, appealing to the centrist in us all, where it has downbeat tones, but is more upbeat than usual, offering a cheerful glimpse of a depressing time, which perhaps accounts for its success.  I’ll offer a list below of other recent coming-of-age films seen, nearly all of which are as good or better than this one, with more than 30% of the films listed directed by women (nearly 44% since 2011), but few have been singled out for similar praise, making this a feelgood film of our times.  While coming-of-age films typically have terrific, on point musical soundtracks, this one is fairly lackluster, never rising to the occasion, instead the writing dominates, as it’s a particularly well-written script, essentially a mother and daughter story.  Perhaps the biggest accolade received so far is that this film is a welcome relief from the oppression of sexist stereotypes that dominate the movies, made all the more significant by watching the trailers that precede the film, where viewers are witness to a stream of sexually promiscuous women accentuating their cleavage or their figure, all subjected to leering eyes, with male stars attracted to women half their age, but are otherwise dominated by exclusively male main characters, where the advertisements accentuate a whirlwind of violence that is sure to follow.  Hard to argue with this, as American movies are part of a systematic sexist problem that is only beginning to flush out the predatory aspect of the industry.  Still, one-third of all films screened at Sundance this year were directed by women, up from the norm which hovers closer to 25%.  According to the Celluloid Ceiling study (Research – Center for the Study of Women in Television & Film), films employ more than twice as many men as women (72% vs. 28%) as directors, writers, producers, executive producers, editors, and cinematographers.  Perhaps more significantly, last year 92% of films had no female directors, while the percentage of women directing any of the top 250 grossing films was only 7%. 

Very few, if any films, are set in Sacramento, California, though Buster Keaton’s STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (1928) was filmed almost entirely in Sacramento, while a character Gerwig played in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (2012) also happened to be from Sacramento, but it happens to be the birthplace of writer/director Greta Gerwig, listed as co-director with Joe Swanberg for NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS (2008), and co-writer for several Noah Baumbach films, so she’s making what amounts to her own film debut, creating a coming-of-age drama that more than likely has autobiographical overtones.  While the film is a love letter to the city of Sacramento, it also reflects a woman’s experience and viewpoint, “a female counterpoint to tales like The 400 Blows (Les quatre cents coups) and 2014 Top Ten List #1 Boyhood,” according to a Rolling Stone interview, "How Greta Gerwig Turned the Personal 'Lady Bird' Into a Perfect Movie".  “I just don’t feel like I’ve seen very many movies about 17-year-old girls where the question is not, ‘Will she find the right guy’ or ‘Will he find her?’  The question should be:  ‘Is she going to occupy her personhood?’  Because I think we’re very unused to seeing female characters, particularly young female characters, as people…And that is something that really annoys the shit out of me.”  Apparently Gerwig has not seen a host of female-directed films listed, as that is precisely what most of them are about, while many male writers are equally adept at writing strong female characters.  Among the best for this age group are Olivier Assayas’s Cold Water (L’eau Froide) (1994) and Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), though this attempts but never reaches the heights of Jane Campion’s rarely seen Two Friends (1986) in terms of writing a scathingly honest script.  But people are insulated by their own personal experience, often feeling where they’re at sucks, and the world would be so much better somewhere else.  If that was the driving force behind the film – fine, as any kind of motivation that produces quality material must be viewed in a positive light.  Ostensibly a story about a young teenage girl who feels stuck in her surroundings, who’d prefer to go to a college as far away as possible, preferably on the East coast, Saoirse Ronan from Brooklyn (2015) is Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, where the idea to use a nickname simply dawned on her one day and she decided to run with it, which also coincides with the idea behind the film.  Among the first words written in the script were, “Why won’t you call me Lady Bird? You promised that you would.”  Even for the writer, herself, she was already intrigued, wondering “Who is this person?”  It turns out she dreams of a life beyond her family and hometown, though she has barely passable grades and little ambition, according to her overcontrolling, straight arrow, real-as-it-gets mother, Laurie Metcalf, delivering one of the year’s finest performances, resembling the closeness of the mother/daughter relationship in TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983), which may as well be the gold standard, but here, despite their obvious affection for one another, they spend most of the film continually butting heads. 

Set in the early 2000’s in a post 9/11 world, her mother works double shifts as a psych nurse, an exceedingly difficult occupation, treating people at the very worst stages in life, some wanting to end it altogether, while her more compassionate father (playwright Tracy Letts) is out of work, demoralized, feeling helpless to be of any real help.  She has an adopted younger brother who lives in the home with his girlfriend, probably the more interesting story, but Gerwig chooses to ignore them most of the time other than to break into occasional brother and sister family spats.  Instead, much of the film takes place at school, where she is a senior in an all girls Catholic high school that at least onscreen resembles a dream Catholic high school, as the nuns are rarely as benign as Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the school Principal, where if you want to know about the severity of Catholic nuns, read Native American author Louise Erdrich who produces chilling images of what constitutes acceptable discipline in the eyes of the church, as it’s meant to be dangerously severe and frightfully painful enough to instill the fear of God, (Saint Marie - The Atlantic from March 1984), while this, on the other hand, is the most lenient Catholic school ever imagined.  Accompanied by her partner in crime, the perpetually overweight Julie (Jonah Hill’s sister, Beanie Feldstein), whose friendship seems to be driven by sincerity and authenticity, the two get away with everything, showing a rebellious streak that smacks of privilege, as they get caught but never punished, where you have to wonder what universe is this in, feeling more like an imagined fairy tale.  Sure enough, plenty of time is spent searching for Prince Charming, even going so far as writing their names on her pink bedroom wall.  The first invention is Danny, Lucas Hedges from 2016 Top Ten List #5 Manchester by the Sea, an attractive hunk in drama class, as they’re seen rehearsing Stephen Sondheim songs from Merrily We Roll Along, where she veers from being all soft and tingly inside to belting out Broadway hits with the best of them, becoming this wonderfully expressive force onstage, with the brilliant Stephen McKinley Henderson as Father Leviatch, this wonderfully creative drama instructor.  But once she sees him kissing another boy at a party, she crosses him off her list, losing all interest in theater as well.  Among the more insightful scenes reveals the wide-ranging effects a single teacher may have on students, as Father Leviatch mysteriously leaves school, but is then seen talking to Lady Bird’s mom in a professional capacity, having what appears to be a breakdown, all happening away from prying eyes, where he’s quickly replaced by an assistant football coach, hilariously reducing theater scenes to drawing up football plays on the chalkboard, where his unbridled enthusiasm transfers to kids scoring touchdowns onstage. 

As it turns out, her first Prince Charming is not what she imagined, so she moves on, developing a fictional personality, dropping her best friend in the process, instead ass-kissing the most attractive and popular girl in school, Jenna, Odeya Rush, pretending to be just like her, which means going to the same parties and living in the rich houses in town.  Most of the confrontational scenes between Lady Bird and her mother revolve around money, as they don’t have much, living on the wrong side of the tracks, so her mother thinks she should be realistic and choose a college somewhere affordable and close, but Lady Bird has other ideas, refusing to accept her mother’s assessment, wanting something more, even if it’s not remotely possible.  Lady Bird’s next invention is the aloof and perpetually morose Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a counterculture wannabe always seen with a book in his hand, currently reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, railing against all things capitalistic while, of course, living the exorbitantly overprotected middle class lifestyle that his wealthy parents can afford.  Lady Bird’s interest in Kyle is that he’s accepted into the social circle of Jenna, becoming best buds, going to parties, living the dream, even if it’s all a lie, eventually exposed as a sham, where she really can’t explain her motive, but it goes back to that original idea, “Who is this person?”  It’s obviously a sign of desperation, a crying out for attention, wanting to be liked and appreciated, even if she goes about it the wrong way.  While it does suggest she’s ashamed of where she’s from, wildly searching for another identity, it does lead to her first sexual experience, where her reaction to it when breaking up several weeks afterwards is priceless, throwing it back in the guy’s face, asking who makes the girl go on top for her first time?  Inevitably, none of the boys are how she imagines, or her life, which does not go swimmingly, but she still holds out hope that one of her college applications will come through.  In a deadly serious one on one conversation with Sister Sarah Joan, after reading her college application essay, the Sister couldn’t help but notice a strong affection for Sacramento comes through “loud and clear.”  Somewhat taken aback, Lady Bird responds that it wasn’t her intention to offer effusive praise, but was simply trying to “pay attention.”  Despite all the melodrama, and dramatic twists and turns, with her mother refusing to speak to her near the end (which makes little sense, as usually this is a typical child’s reaction), the inherent message of the film is that love and paying attention are essentially the same thing, something she only recognizes at the end, with a little help from her Dad, finally coming full circle.  After seeing the film for the first time, Gerwig’s own mother reportedly told her, “Greta, you wish I’d give you the silent treatment.”   

Other coming-of-age films

Kogonada’s Columbus (2017)
Joachim Trier’s Thelma (2017)
Guðmundur Arnar Guðmundsson’s Heartstone (Hjartasteinn) (2016)
John Carney’s Sing Street (2016)
Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women (2016) and THUMBSUCKER (2005)
John Crowley’s Brooklyn (2015)
*Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s Mustang (2015)
Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope (2015)
Alfonso Goméz-Rejón’s Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)
*Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015)
Richard Linklater’s 2014 Top Ten List #1 Boyhood
*Céline Sciamma’ Girlhood (Bande de Filles) (2014)
Niels Arden Oplev’s Speed Walking (Kapgang) (2014)
*Alice Rohrwacher’s The Wonders (Le meraviglie) (2014)
*Julie Bertucelli’s School of Babel (La Cour de Babel) (2014)
Gabriel Velázquez’s Ärtico (Arctic) (2014) and Iceberg (2011)
*Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love (2013)
Ragnar Bragason’s Metalhead (Málmhaus) (2013)
Emir Baigazin’s Harmony Lessons (Uroki garmonii) (2013)
*Katell Quillévéré’s Suzanne (2013) and LOVE LIKE POISON (2010)
James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now (2013)
Aron Gaudet and *Gita Pullapilly’s Beneath the Harvest Sky (2013)
David Chase’s Not Fade Away (2012)
*Maarit Lalli’s Almost 18 (Kohta 18) (2012)
Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)
*Rebecca Zlotowski’s Belle Épine (2012)
Gabriel Mariňo’s A Secret World (Un Mundo Secreto) (2012)
*Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz (2011)
*Mia Hansen-Løve’s Goodbye First Love (Un Amour de Jeunesse) (2011)
*Jannicke Systad Jacobsen’s Turn Me On, Dammit! (Få meg på, for faen) (2011)
*Dee Rees’s Pariah (2011)
*Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011) and MORVERN CALLAR (2002)
Robert David Mitchell’s THE MYTH OF THE AMERICAN SLEEPOVER (2010)
Matthew Porterfield’s Putty Hill (2010)
Greg Mottola’s Adventureland (2009)
*Andrea Arnold’s FISH TANK (2009)
*Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (2008)
Christophe Honoré’s LA BELLE PERSONNE (2008)
Jason Reitman’s JUNO (2007)
Dito Montiel’s A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints (2006)
Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland’s QUINCEAÑERA (2006)
Noah Baumbach’s THE SQUID AND THE WHALE (2005)
Mark Waters’ MEAN GIRLS (2004)
Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation (2003)
Gus Van Sant’s ELEPHANT (2003)
Peter Sollett’s RAISING VICTOR VARGAS (2002)
Richard Kelly’s DONNIE DARKO (2001)
Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001)
Shunji Iwai’s ALL ABOUT LILY CHOU-CHOU (2001)
Dardenne brothers’ ROSETTA (1999)
Lukas Moodysson’s  Show Me Love (Fucking Åmål) (1998)
Erick Zonca’s THE DREAMLIFE OF ANGELS (1998)
André Téchiné’s Wild Reeds (Les Roseaux Sauvages) (1994)
Allan Moyle’s PUMP UP THE VOLUME (1990)
*Jane Campion’s Two Friends (1986)
*Agnès Varda’s Vagabond (Sans toit ni loi) (1985)
Maurice Pialat’s À Nos Amours (To Our Loves) (1983)
Francis Ford Coppola’s RUMBLE FISH (1983) and THE OUTSIDERS (1983) 
Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (1980)
Peter Yates’ Breaking Away (1979)

*Female directors

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