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TIFF: Gerwig's Lovely "Lady Bird"

by Chris Feil

One of the most heartening things about Greta Gerwig’s directorial arrival Lady Bird is how naturally it feels like an extension of her previous acting work. The film is modest, unpretentious in its intelligent character study of a high school senior facing the near-adulthood pressures of the end of high school and living in a poor family. Christine, redubbing herself Lady Bird, is just at the beginning of her own reinvention and the other one that the world has waiting for her whether she likes it or not.

The familiarity of the film’s subject matter is easy to ignore for all of the film’s warm wit and casually exacting cultural observations. Lady Bird is less interested in glib retorts and warm fuzzies (though it has plenty) than it is in crafting a film that embodies its heroine’s state of mind. The film is intuitively edited for maximum laughs and emotional incisiveness, but Gerwig and editor Nick Houy have made a film that informs character just in the not-so-simple shape of the thing.

What also sets this film aside from its contemporaries is its specificity for time and place as much as character. For someone who graduated high school in the immediate years following 9/11, the film is kind of a cozily eerie flash of deja vu. It’s exact not only in its references but also the time’s unique blend of political combativeness, declining economy, and burgeoning technological independence - all when, you know, you’re kind of an asshole kid. Add in one of the best and most surprising (Sondheim montage!) soundtracks of the year, and Gerwig plops us into a very specific high school experience. Consider a Lady Bird installment of Soundtracking to be an inevitability.

The film has one of the year’s best ensembles - you will be wanting more time with just about every performance, though Gerwig uses each player effectively in their brief screen time. Lady Bird’s boyfriends reflect her push and pull for attention: the sweet and doting All-American type played by Lucas Hedges and a distant would-be intellectual played by Timothée Chalamet. Beanie Feldstein plays a best friend role that has her own interiority and pain without being reduced to a punchline factory a lesser film would have made her.

Tracy Letts is quite sweet as the father, but it’s Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother of high expectations that is the standout. Metcalf plays Marion with shades of exhaustion, disappointment, and patience all at once without letting this mother be defined by any one mood. Hers is a very subtle performance, but moving for how it mirrors her daughter’s own shifting emotions.

But Gerwig has quite a match in Saoirse Ronan. Lady Bird is a completely different kind of young woman for Ronan to play, contemporary and self-destructive. While the film doesn’t require the kind of powerhouse emotion of her best work, it’s her rangiest work to date and adept at the film’s massive third act shifts. Ronan reads as noticeably older than her younger costars, but she plays Lady Bird to full youthful self-absorption that it makes for an unexpectedly interesting dynamic on screen. For all the cliches of “caught between childhood and adulthood” that clobber high school films, Lady Bird and Ronan’s performance actually live in that feeling to its frustrating and heartbreaking capacity.

Gerwig has created a first solo directorial effort that’s every bit as lovely as her on-screen persona, and with just as delicate of a touch for character contradictions and shortcomings. The high school film tropes are there - proms, virginity, falling outs - but Gerwig is more interested in the emotions of the fringes of the rites of passage rather than the rituals themselves. More a triumph of authorial voice than reinvention, Lady Bird is quite lovely indeed.

Grade: A-

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Reader Comments (4)

Your article makes me want to see it even more. 👏

Do you think it's Oscar-bound?

September 17, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterBVR

BVR - some people are high on Laurie Metcalf's chances, but I'd be a little surprised for anything past Original Screenplay (unless the movie really takes off). I'd think Indie Spirits and maybe some Globes Comedy love are more likely

September 18, 2017 | Registered CommenterChris Feil

McDormand, Hawkins are as close as locks atm. Ronan not far behind. The Actor's branch of the Academy LOVES her. Remember the loud cheers she received when she was announced for Brooklyn? The othe two slots, we'll see when the Critics Groups gather. From Benning to Chastain, to Close (it's hard to erase from memory she was nominated for the ridiculous Albert Nobbs!) it seems like another strong year for women. Echoing the Witherspoon speech at the Emmys.

September 18, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterchofer

Just saw your newest Best Picture prediction line-up. Really surprised the prognosticator set seems so...dismissive...on the chances of the Marston biopic. I'd certainly buy it on paper a bit more than Mudbound (Netflix) and Wonderstruck at this point, and way more than ANYTHING below position 10.

September 18, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

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