Lady Bird

Hella tight

lb

Years ago, in my Frances Ha review, I praised Greta Gerwig’s screenwriting as being full of nuanced characters, fearless language, woman protagonists who don’t abide by male-invented tropes, and dialogue wherein you don’t immediately know whether the character is right or wrong. Lady Bird fulfills my (and probably lots of other people’s) prediction that Gerwig was going to break out big time.

A film that takes place in 2002 is a period piece now, and Gerwig’s vision of Sacramento captures a currently popular theme: the clash between nostalgia and the need to escape from home. These narratives always center around young people, and the best ones lately (I’m thinking, fondly, of Life is Strange) involve adolescent girls with difficult family dynamics, figuring themselves out as they realize they want more. In the case of Christine (Saoirse Ronan), the escapism involves abandoning her birth name, which sets her apart from everyone at her Catholic high school.

Lady Bird’s best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), is her only equal, and the only person she laughs with (I’m talking actual laughing, where the laughers don’t care who’s watching or how goofy they look or what problems are waiting outside the laugh). The film is as much about the arc of their friendship as it is about anything else. The rest of the supporting cast also get complete, unique arcs, including Jenna (Odeya Rush), a popular girl whose short-lived friendship with Lady Bird is entirely based on lies; Danny (Lucas Hedges); Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, whose too-good-to-be-true vibe pays off fantastically; Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), Lady Bird’s adopted brother with whom she shares a classic love-hate rivalry, and others. The most important relationship in the film, however, is between LB and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who works her ass off in her job as a nurse, but just doesn’t speak LB’s language or understand what she needs beyond food and shelter.

This relationship is what the movie is about, and the writing pulls no punches. Neither mother nor daughter is allowed to be right all the time. Ronan carries every scene, playing LB as a child, wild youth, mature friend, fostering older sibling, and more. Sometimes, she says something awful and screams and storms out of a room, and love her as we might, we can’t defend her. Everyone is held up to scrutiny, even the dad (Tracy Letts), who just sort of agrees with LB about everything so he doesn’t have to be the bad guy.

Gerwig, Ronan, and the crew have really given us something here: a truthful film about the place below the poverty line, about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships (and women’s lives in general), about un-fetishizing girls in Catholic school, and a story where the men get the “stereotypical love interest” treatment (goody two-shoes schoolboy vs. pot-addled rocker guy). And it’s got a school assembly scene that obliterates the one from Donnie Darko: In response to an anti-abortion speaker’s sanctimonious baloney, LB says, “Maybe if your mom had gone through with the abortion, we wouldn’t have to sit through this fucking assembly.” Hard to argue with that logic.

Lady_Bird_poster.jpegLady Bird (2017); written and directed by Greta Gerwig; starring Saoirse Ronan.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Frances Ha

O, the places she’ll go

Frances HaGreta Gerwig’s screenwriting career is promising.  Here, in tandem with director Noah Baumbach, she gives us Frances Ha, in which she plays the title character, a young dancer living with her longtime best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner).  They love each other, but are both straight, and find themselves in sedentary, inert relationships with various boneheads before always coming back to each other.  This little world they’ve created together, illustrated in wonderful opening scenes in which the two share in-jokes, smoke on their porch, and wrestle like children, sees upheaval when Sophie decides to move out.  She’s got a promising job and a dude who wants to marry her.  She’s growing up.  Frances is left with no real friends in New York, and must quickly figure out how to live by herself and/or find new roommates, while also struggling with what to do with her life.  Human problems.

But what follows is not navel-gazing.  Frances embarks upon a quiet journey through the city, first meeting and rooming with Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen) before having to move out due to a lack of rent money.  She visits her parents, has less-than-pleasant encounters with Sophie, travels to Paris alone for a short weekend, and debates with herself and her incredible patient employer, Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise) whether to pursue dance on her own or stay with her current company, which will have her working a desk job and teaching children when time allows.  All of this is shot in perfectly rustic black-and-white, and Frances’s exploits are far more engaging than any number of suspense thrillers and monster attacks that have been staged in that very same city.

Frances herself is funny, confident, and gentle, though not stereotypically “vulnerable” as we too often require our female protagonists to be.  At one point, she shares something very important to her: always having someone who knows you so well that when you end up at the same party together, all you have to do is catch each other’s eye, and suddenly you’re both immersed in a world that no one else can understand.  Any characters listening must suspect that Frances is pining for an idealized romance, but those of us who saw the opening shots know what she really means.  The film’s ending, which ties off every thread (almost too nicely, really), is an expert example of how to do “optimistic” filmmaking.

Frances Ha is not very concerned with why things happen.  Each segment of Frances’s life plays like its own short film, and I could have easily watched another two hours of that.  Her big decision, however, is made with little explanation, and we want to know how her penultimate encounter with Sophie inspires her to take a leap that she’s avoided throughout the entire film.  What we have in this film outweighs what we don’t, but in a cool indie film about true-to-life characters with whom we get to spend less than 90 minutes, we shouldn’t have to do too much weighing.

This is what we need more of: minimalism.  Nuanced characters.  Thoughtful dialogue wherein you don’t immediately know if the character speaking is right or wrong.  Fearless language.  Female protagonists who don’t fit into any male-invented archetype.  Male supporting characters who aren’t perverts.  Serious filmmakers telling important stories without first having to sit through ten Hollywood board meetings led by people who don’t watch movies.

Frances Ha (2013); written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach; directed by Noah Baumbach; starring Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner.