Lady Bird (*****) perfectly flawed


Lady Bird – 2017

Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring  Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith

It’s amazing how great of a year it’s been in movies. I have had one film after the other take the spot of best movie and favorite movie. Up to now, none of them have been both. I think we found it in this story that’s simply about a young, not so rich girl, growing up.

The content is rough, but it’s not brutal. In my limited amount of time I have spent on this planet being a girl (so far, 0 minutes), this seems to be the most realistically feminine film I have experienced. Ronan is Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. She is in her last year of High School in Sacramento, but it’s the last city she wants to go to college. She wants to go to the east coast, which really means New York. She is an average student at a Catholic high school, but her test scores are decent. She has a shot.

Her mother, Marion (Metcalf) doesn’t think its at all practical, either logistically or financially. She’s working double shifts at the hospital in the wake of her husband being laid off at his job, and she knows every penny counts.

Lady Bird is going through many changes, but not any more than her friends. The experiences of a high school teenager in 2002 are about the same as those in any era, except for the difference in phone communication. She’s not the first kid that’s ever been frustrated by her station in life. I am not sure if that frustration has ever been more honestly portrayed. This even outpaces Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

Life isn’t kicking Lady Bird in the face. Most of the damage is brought on by her own actions, like when she jumps out of a moving car while she’s arguing with her mother. She gets to live with the consequences, and learn from them.

I don’t know if I have ever seen a smarter coming of age script. There are many resonant and funny lines scattered throughout. The lines work because they are coming from fully realized characters. From the Sister Sarah Joan (Smith), Father Leviatch (Henderson), her best friend “Julie” (Feldstein) to her first real boyfriend Danny (Hedges), the characters are familiar, but never predictable. They are warm and real and flawed and beautiful. Even the jerks aren’t really so bad. They keep track of the lies and they don’t do it themselves.

That there is not a consistent flow in this story is not a total surprise. I found myself wondering how long the film was going to go on. Not because I was tired of it, but because it vaults past many typical jumping off points in favor of just plain finishing the story, even if the last step is an awkward one. There is no grand finale. There is a girl who discovers yet again that reality trumps her imagination. And that ain’t such a bad fate.

Of the acting, I can say this is the best film I have seen from top to bottom of the cast. Each of the characters are real and they are vital to the story. They have their own trajectory, and aren’t just there to service the plot. There are several story lines that could have made a remarkable film on their own. It feels like a beautiful collision of universes that we are lucky enough to discover converging at once.

Gerwig is an incredible talent as a writer and director. She has a knack for funny, honest and beautiful dialogue that is as awkward as it is perfect. The conversations between Lady Bird and Marion are some of the most resonant I have seen between a child and their parent. The discussions feel “as though eternity beckons” when really one’s just curious as to how the bills are being paid.

The relationship between father and daughter is not any less sweet. Letts’ Larry is a man of great dignity, miraculously devoid of pride without being a sad sack. He pushes on as he can and he’s has a bond with his daughter and son separately, but no less vibrantly. The sequence of seeing him job hunting and interviewing with someone who has no idea the relevance of him as an employee or as a person is heartbreaking. It’s something to which most men with kids in high school and beyond will have no difficulty relating.

This film is Ronan’s coming out, though. Don’t let anyone fool you with talk about McDormand. The Oscar for Best Actress in a leading role should go through her, and there really isn’t anyone close. She showed immense talent in last year’s Brooklyn, and she shows depth here. Her ability to champ at the bit while running through parts of life she’d best walk through is a wonder to watch. She’s got an intense, beautiful intelligence that gives the viewer the experience of being her, instead of just watching.

Metcalf also deserves strong consideration for her supporting role. Her raw, weathered beauty has time for many things in life, except, perhaps, sorting out her intense feelings for a daughter who is just like her. I have always appreciated Metcalf, but never more than here.

Gerwig needs to be on everyone’s shortlist for Director and Screenplay. This film is a masterpiece, and it should never leave our consciousness. It treats life in a sad, beautiful and fair manner. There is nothing here to put on post card. There is plenty here to put a stamp on your heart.

(***** out of *****)


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (**1/2) is a take worth leaving


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – 2017

Written and Directed by Martin McDonagh
Starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, John Hawkes, Peter Dinklage, Lucas Hedges, Samara Weaving, Caleb Landry Jones, Kerry Condon, Željko Ivanek, Nick Searcy

There is a smell that pervades most of Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, even as they spend much of the time trying to work against convention. It smells of judgement in the way that someone who lives in a coastal urban area might judge those who live in the flyby states. In this thought process, people who live in Missouri are more than a little racist, homophobic and shallow. Not all of them, of course. There has to be people in the town to judge them as such.

One such person in this story is Mildred Hayes (McDormand), whose daughter was tortured, burned and raped almost a year ago. And she hasn’t heard anything from the police force of her town in almost 7 months. This spurs her into the action of hiring the three billboards of the title. On these billboards are the sequential messages “Raped while dying,” And still no arrests,” and “How come, Chief Willoughby.”

There are a lot of good actors in this film. One of them, Nick Searcy, is known for his knack of using clever dialogue in a clever way. This is especially due to his several years playing U.S. Marshall Mullen on Elmore Leonard’s Justified. I knew there was something amiss when I saw him donning the black as Father Montgomery here. His five minutes of screen time are a perfect example of how poorly written the dialogue is when you don’t understand who you’re writing about. He says things that no man of the cloth would ever say, then the script requires him to look dumbfounded when Mildred rakes him over the coals regarding the ‘group’ he is part of and what they, if not he, have done to young boys. Then she walks off, all dramatic-like. And he is required to look defeated. This is a righteous indignant social justice warrior’s dream. They write the script, and have their enemies layed out perfectly per their own impressions of them.

Not that there isn’t some good parts to the film, though. Woody Harrelson is as fine as I have ever seen him. His Sheriff Willoughby is troubled, but hardly conflicted. If the film saw more of his character, it would have surely been a benefit. There is something more to his character than the one note characters surrounding and following him.

One of the most troubling characterizations for me is Sam Rockwell’s bumpkin without a cause, Officer Jason Dixon (get it, Mason/Jason?). He and his mother, played by Sandy Martin are ambling through life just smoking, watching television and hating anything different. Why the Sheriff keeps him on the payroll will be for you to find out. First though, we need to see him get worse as the situation demands. My problem is as much with Rockwell’s Californian estimate of the south as it is with McDonagh’s substantial misreading of middle America as part of the deep south. Perhaps if I didn’t have friends and relatives from Missouri, I might buy into this interpretation more.

The things that people do to each other and their property in this film are hard to take. What’s even more difficult to believe is that no one seems intent on investigating any of these things, even when it’s done in the open. People walk around freely after committing felonies and then walk away. No one ever says, “Hey did you kick two kids in the junk at a school?” Things get compounded and misunderstood enough to qualify for a Curb Your Enthusiasm skit, only with significantly fewer laughs.

Much hay has been made that this is a sure thing for McDormand. This movie is nowhere close to Fargo, though. There is character development, to a point, but when someone starts off as the aggrieved divorced mother, there’s only so far one can go. McDormand gets there, though, and has several touching moments in the plot. Truth is, she’s been better and she’s significantly better than the script deserves. Maybe if she’d referred to Dinklage as a midget just a few less times, I might buy that she’s advanced culturally.

Deep beneath the curdling cries of injustice being perpetuated by lazy Missouri “southerners” there is a half-way decent plot. Living in a liberal bastion of the Northwestern United States, I heard more than a few self-satisfied snickers during all of the key political points. None of this resonated, though. There’s only so many times you can call someone a Neanderthal before it loses its impact. Of course by the time we have a need for a real bad guy, one just comes out of the blue, or does he?  Or do we even care by then?

McDonagh has been effective in the past, with many of the same actors, even. He completely wastes Searcy, Dinklage and Hawkes here. If his writing seemed better in the past, it may have been due to more familiarity with the subjects. I wish the focus had been more on realistic characters, maybe punching up the plot a bit. Telling urban American city folk that the people living out there where there’s green trees and grass are creepy and weird is a surefire way to win festivals and maybe awards. It will not win as history or any sort of lesson, though.

(**1/2 out of *****)