Film review – Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

In September 2003, I had reached my goal. Or so I thought. I spent 18 years building towards reaching university. I studied hard, behaved sensibly, stayed away from alcohol, achieved good grades, applied to a reputable university and chose a subject I knew would hold me in good stead for the future. I put the effort in and the hard work paid off. I was there, wherever “there” was.

I should have felt a distinct sense of achievement, but instead I stood there as my parents drove away, face in hands, sobbing my eyes out. Suddenly I was alone with nobody to turn to. Everything I’d done before, all the friends I’d made, all the information I’d been taught, right in that moment, meant nothing.

My university years were ahead of me, or a romanticised version of them. A chapter in my life was firmly shutting behind me as the next chapter started. It was, it must be said, one of the fearful moments of my life.

It was my memory of that moment, strangely seen through my parents’ eyes rather than my own – a trick of the mind I often play on myself when remembering my own memories – that flashed through me at some point near the start of the film ‘Lady Bird’, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. It’s a powerful piece of cinema that awakens such stark memories, but that is exactly what it did.

‘Lady Bird’ a small story about a girl in Sacramento, California. That person is Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) , a girl we are introduced to in an emotional rollercoaster of an opening sequence in a car journey with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), which spirals down from a joyous reflection of an audiobook cassette of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’. Before long the pair are engaged in a wholesome argument unique to parents with teenage children, before Lady Bird finds a novel way to end the discussion with shocking and hilarious consequences.

The film serves as an exploration of a girl coming of age, fitting in, not fitting in, hoping to go to college in New York and dealing with the relationships and life surrounding her. It is, simply, a snapshot of a girl at a critical point in her life.

There is are many secondary relationships that help further explore the character of Lady Bird at a critical time of her life. Her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) encourages her to join a theatre group, where she meets her first teenage love obsession Danny (Lucas Hedges). The scenes set in this plot strand provide some fantastic early laughs, though Danny’s story arc is one that allows Hedges to deliver a really beautiful characterisation when the story could have settled for a much lesser throwaway love interest. Indeed, the relationship between Ronan and Hedges shares a certain understated chemistry that is brought to fruition in one of the film’s most powerful scenes during an encounter behind a coffee shop. It’s a real showstopper.

The plot is brought to life with some extremely snappy dialogue that provides genuine laughs throughout. Greta Gerwig has had a mixed bag of output throughout her career, beginning with a strong association with the mumble core movement and an early success with ‘Frances Ha’. Whilst both Mistress AmericaandWiener-Dog’ had some drawbacks, her role in 20th Century Women in 2016 was a real high point in a career that had been under close scrutiny since her early success. She has grown into an actor, writer and director of real credentials, and ‘Lady Bird’ feels like the ultimate realisation of her talents.

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It is a love letter to the city of Sacramento, with Gerwig inevitably drawing on her own experiences and relationship to the city to create plot points. She herself grew up in the city and moved to New York to study at university. One can’t help but feel that Lady Bird’s quick switch of home city from Sacramento to San Francisco was a line Gerwig has used many times herself, partly to enhance her exoticism and partly to make explaining it much easier.

Stylistically, the costumes, sounds and stylisation of the film managed to achieve a sense of nostalgia for 2003, which can’t have been easy given that it feels so recent. As a house party scene begins and we hear Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me A River over the sound system there is a real feeling that they were getting it right.

‘Lady Bird’ is. simply, a joy to watch. From start to finish the balance between humorous dialogue and well-paced plot progression is very fine indeed. The result puts it as a frontrunner for awards season next year.

‘Lady Bird’ will reach UK cinemas on 29th December 2017.

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Film review – 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2017)

To mark 2017’s International Women’s Day, I dropped into the cinema to catch 20th Century Women, a film with three powerful and independent women at the heart of its plot. A triple Bechdel Test passer, the film indeed avoids the usual cinematic tropes and instead explores how men are often defined by the women around them.

In 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman) is a 15-year-old boy who is lacking a father figure in his life. His mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) has been long-single, but lives in a luxuriously huge house that she has converted into a sort of commune, in which lives a young female photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and an emotionally-detached carpenter and handyman William (Billy Crudup) who is renovating the house for her. Julie (Elle Fanning) is a girl with whom Jamie is unrequitedly besotted; she wishes for him to remain as a friend only whilst she has a series of never-seen male sexual partners.

Mike Mills has cultivated an intelligent film from his own original script, describing it as a love letter to the women who raised him.

It’s the sort of quirky and intimate story that can only be crafted from ones own experiences, with two fingers up to the notion that boys need fathers and girls need mothers in order to be raised properly. Interestingly, whilst there are innumberable films that explore fathers being thrust into the role of both mother and father figures to both boys and girls, the concept of a group of women creating a support network for growth of a teenage boy feels wholly fresh and quite important.

The standout performance in a solid cast comes from Greta Gerwig, who I have seen in several films previously and never been excessively impressed with. This time, she is absolutely mesmerising as a young woman who is recovering from cervical cancer. We learn that the cancer was probably linked to her mother’s Diethylstilbestrol (DES) drug treatment during her pregnancy. She has been effectively disowned by her guilt-stricken mother, unable to cope with the fact she feels responsible for causing her daughter’s cancer. As a role, this is no light task, and Gerwig is at times totally breathtaking in her performance.

It is strange that the boy whose life the story revolves around eventually turns out to be a supporting character to the three leads. It is a lovingly-created film that is as relatable to mothers as it is to sisters of brothers and as it is to sons. With characters this believable and brilliant performances across the board, this is a film well worth seeing.

Film review – Wiener-Dog (Todd Solondz, 2016)

Wiener-Dog is a 2016 portmanteau black comedy written and directed by Todd Solondz. The phrase “black comedy” in this sense is somewhat skewed, for whilst the comedy is sporadic, the blackness of the story is fairly consistent. There are four separate tales told, each with the tenuous common theme of the titular wiener-dog.

Of the four tales, only Danny DeVito’s Professor Schmerz ignites the script and leaves any sense of desire to expand on his story. This doesn’t mean the segment is too short – its length is spot on – it’s just that the character was interesting enough to warrant a follow-up story. Solondz, a film school lecturer himself, clearly drew on real life experiences to portray a wholly negative view of that world. There are several meaty laughs along the way (the clueless interviewee that failed to name a single film despite his enthusiasm sticks out), and the pay-off on the punchline is well worth investing in this captivating tale.


Sadly, the same cannot be said of the remaining three segments. Whilst there are moments in each that redeem them – a heartwarming brotherly chat, a wonderful moment of freedom with a pillow fight, a truly shocking hit and run accident – they are few and far between. The pairing of the painfully irritating Greta Gerwig and the uninspiring Kieran Culkin was inevitably enough to derail any movie just as it needed to get going. 

It’s almost as if Solondz was deliberately trying to antagonise his audience, setting their expectations only to pull the rug out from underneath them. Even the layout of the stories does this, providing a minimal thread from segment one to segment two, only to punctuate the second with a bizarre intermission and start the third with an entirely unrelated tale.

Solondz is considered by many as one of the great modern social commentary filmmakers. On the evidence here, that’s not the case. Better examples of his work are out there.

Film review – Mistress America (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

Mistress America tells the story of two sisters-to-be: college freshman Tracy Fishco (Lola Kirke) and aspiring entrepreneur Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Their respective mother and father are soon to be wed so Tracy contacts Brooke to get to know her and is immediately taken into the whirlwind of her seemingly colourful lifestyle.

The characters portrayed in Mistress America are the self-indulged types with delusions of grandeur that inspired me when I was a late teenager going into my early 20s. Watching the story play out and seeing remnants of me in a earlier life was a cringeworthy experience. 

On the rare occasion that they respond directly to someone talking to them, it is usually to spin the conversation back to focus on themselves. There is little or no consideration for anyone around them, flaws that are a result of not really having any likeable personality traits nor tangible skill to offer the world.

  

It makes for some snappy and quirky exchanges but shortly becomes highly irritating as you realise how shallow and lacking in the fundamental characteristics of life these people are. They are typically lonely and disparate people struggling to find their way, perhaps because they are so self-indulgent beyond reproach that they have been ignored by anyone they have come into contact with. 

In one almost triumphant scene, Brooke is put on the spot to pitch her new business idea to her ex-boyfriend in an attempt to gain financial backing for a conceptual cafĂ© that sounds like a mess of non-ideas. It was the only scene in the film that I derived any enjoyment from as her lack of business acumen and a basic idea concept resulted in an embarrassment of a presentation. When sister Tracy stepped in to save the day, the triumphant music belied the fact that she also didn’t add anything to the pitch, just spurted more idealistic jargon with no real substance. My real enjoyment came when the whole room erupted in applause. Why were they clapping. A raised voice and some positive music doth not a business idea make.

I don’t think I’ve ever checked the progress of a film so much as when watching this, and it was making painfully slow progress. I certainly don’t think it’s the worst film I’ve ever seen, but it comes close and it isn’t something I could ever recommend to anyone.

Avoid.