Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Nov 17, 2017 3:17 pm 
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Loving and leaving Sacramento in a sparkling if overstuffed debut

Greta Gerwig has been an actress with the mumblecore directors Joe Swanberg and the Duplass brothers; and, with growing fame, with other directors like Jason Winer, Alison Bagnall, Woody Allen and Whit Stillman. Then with mutual profit and success she became a muse for Noah Baumbach, contributing a lot to the writing of the Baumbach films she starred in as she had to earlier screenplays (in fact she had focused on acting originally only because she couldn't get into playwriting MFA programs). Now at last after over a decade in the business, she has become a writer-director, creating but not acting in her own loosely autobiographical tale. It's a generally lighthearted feature that tries to say a little too much but is fun and amusing and not without its moments of heartache and shock. This movie is charming, but flawed. It won't assume a place among classics of the recent past like Heathers, Sixteen Candles, and The Virgin Suicides. But it seems a good expression of the ebullient spirit of its maker and it has some things to say about early millennial ambition in the urban boonies and some of the tests faced by a California girl in her late teens in 2002.

Lady Bird focuses on senior year at a Catholic high school in Gerwig's native Sacramento, California, that crucial moment in a bildungsroman before its protagonist escapes to the great world where she must go to make a name for herself. Though to start out she's not going off to be a star in any particular field of the arts, only choosing to go to study at an East Coast college and not a local California school like, most obviously, UC Davis, which for this young woman would be death. After all, it started life as an agricultural college. This girl really wants New York, and she knows it.

But she's not New York, and she's not shrewd or sophisticated. She a Sacramento girl. The problems Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) encounters are several. In a school musical production she gets involved with Danny O'Neill (Lucas Hedges), and they have a sweet affair. He "respects" her and loves her so much he doesn't want to touch her breasts. At prom night another reason for his reticence emerges: he's actually gay. That ends that. Hedges is an actor much in demand who was Oscar-nominated for his supporting role in Manchester by the Sea; not surprisingly, he's touching and adorable in this role, which doesn't end with the couple's abrupt breakup but has several appealing followup scenes. Next, via a coffeeshop job, Lady Bird finds her way to the cool, sophisticated Kyle (Timothée Chalamet, another topnotch young actor, costarring in the upcoming Call Me by Your Name), who's also apparently rich. But there is a misunderstanding that makes her feel cheated when she thought they were both losing their virginity together, and it turns out Kyle has been with "about" six girls: he doesn't even keep count. This portrait of Lady Bird's amorous and sexual path is limited but vivid.

With girlfriends it's complicated too. Her best friend is the plump, smart Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who's good in math (as Lady Bird would like to be but definitely isn't) and in love with the handsome math teacher, Mr. Bruno (Jake McDorman). But our heroine is a snob, or a climber (also not averse to cheating on tests or stealing a grade book), and gets into an "in" set by pretending to be rich and pals around with stuck-up Alpha rich girl Jenna (Odeya Rush). A major asset of Danny's was that his grandmother lived in her favorite house in the poshest neighborhood of Sacramento. It's not a tough decision to choose Thanksgiving at Danny's grandma's over at her parents. In justification of this trend, Lady Bird's family is poor, and rising beyond it is going to take maneuvering. Her long-depressed father (Tracy Letts) loses his job in the tech industry, and finding another is tough. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf) works in a psychiatric hospital.

A major theme is Lady Bird's conflict with her mother, whose constant criticisms get in the way of her showing her underlying love. This movie is over-busy, and though it constantly touches on this theme, it never emerges with the force it seems to deserve. (On the other hand, it contains many choice moments one wouldn't want to see cut.) Daddy comes through smelling like a rose, kindly filling out the student loan applications that are crucial to Lady Bird's escape, and also when she does leave, slipping into her suitcase thrown away letters that show her mother's love. The latter is a compensatory afterthought, more telling than showing, but fits in with Gerwig's omnibus writing style.

As Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson, Saoirse Ronan delivers a fine and dedicated performance that yet has lightness. Ronan has a severe presence, and may seem a very odd choice as a stand-in for the beautiful and bubbly Gerwig, who is luminous where Ronan seems drab and flat. But Ronan is also simply very, very good. Even if the actress lacks Gerwig's beauty and bubbliness. some of the other major qualities are there, and Ronan exudes an energy here that eventually gives her too a kind of glow of her own. Nonetheless as Richard Brody says in his New Yorker essay, this film is tight and on the surface conventional and lacks the exhilerating improvisatory feel of many of the ones Gerwig has previously acted in and helped write.

The main thing is, this happens in Sacramento, to which this is a hail and farewell. Lady Bird, doubtless like the filmmaker, loves Sacramento. When Lady Bird finally gets her driver's license, driving around the town and admiring its sights moves her deeply . But this flat, hot town, original home of Joan Didion, who escaped to places like Malibu and Manhattan, is too limited for such an ambitious young person. For college she must go to New York, or, if not there to a college in Connecticut or New Hampshire, "where writers live in the woods."

This isn't much of a sketch of intellectual development. Lady Bird goes to a Catholic high school. One nun does speak of her love of Kierkegaard. And her second boyfriend has gloomy, left-leaning political ideas. Meanwhile it's post-9/11 and Bush's wars are getting going.

On the one hand, Gerwig tries to tell us too much information. Some elements never seem clear, like Lady Bird's brother (Jordan Rodrigues) and sister, apparently adopted? On the other hand, despite the lack of subordination and inclusion of undigested details, they do give the movie a particularity that others of the kind often lack. Gerwig is irrepressible. That is part of the charm. And in this lean season this movie is a boon and contains much that can be savored.

Lady Bird, 94 mins., debuted at Telluride (1 Sept. 2017) and Toronto (8 Sept.), also was at the New York Film Festival (8 Oct.) and in 14 other festivals. It opened in the US 3 Nov. 2017.


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