Oscar Nominee 2018 Review: Lady Bird

Lady Bird (2017)
Dir: Greta Gerwig

Coming-of-age films are two-a-penny, so many are put under that banner, but then every few years one comes along that stands out and gets considerable attention. This year it’s this directorial debut that has made an impact, thanks in no small part to its heartfelt writing, likable characters and some really excellent performances, skillfully brought together by Greta Gerwig.

In her last year of high school, ‘Lady Bird’ (Saoirse Ronan) has a busy year navigating all the challenges of romance, friendship and family, as she tries to give herself a chance at moving far away for college.

Set in 2002 in Sacramento California, a location that the eponymous lead says she loathes and wants to leave behind, something nicely questioned a few times by other characters who point out the attention to detail she gives it and attribute it to unacknowledged affection. This era and place is given what is clearly a writer’s artistic eye, something that’s really key and interesting when you consider the semi-autobiographical nature of the film for its writer/director Greta Gerwig. She clearly has a skill for drawing on experience and well-observed details then adapting them into her writing and direction in a way that comes across honestly and effectively.

Sharp dialogue, especially the mother and daughter relationship is central, their chemistry is the lynchpin to much of the film’s emotional core and it becomes a highlight.   Has a verisimilitude that is proof of Gerwig’s drawing on life experience for the story and a talent to perfectly translate that into a script, something that prompted the nomination for best original screenplay.

As with any film of this nature, friendships are an important aspect of the character’s lives. There’s a nice contrast between Julie and Jenna, the characteristics of longtime and temporary friendships. Awkwardness with boys, teenage romance, first with Danny then cool Kyle (man-of-the-moment Timothee Chalamet). Shock heartbreak. Timothee Chalamet, musician, pretentious hipster type.

The film also touches on some really serious themes. One that’s most clear are the financial concerns shaping the family, with employment difficulties and the ways this affects family dynamics from the most obvious ways such as how much time they can be at home together, to different generations vying for the same jobs. There’s also subtle but honest depictions of depression, something that affects a few characters in the film, eluded to in different ways and to varying degrees.

As an editor, the distinctive editing particularly stood out to me. There’s lots of cutting, at times the film shows brief glimpses of journeys and other events, trimming what might otherwise have been a lengthy scene down to seconds. Most of the film moves along very swiftly. Very ordinary life, nothing outstanding or particularly unusual, editing works to cut down on the most overly boring moments and get straight to the bits that stand out the most in her life. Contrastingly, one particularly important and poignant scene is made all the more so by the way it takes its time and doesn’t cut, allowing for a beautiful wordless performance by Laurie Metcalfe.

Saoirse Ronan is excellent as ‘Lady Bird’ (whose birth name is actually Christine), her knack for accents helping her to be completely convincing as an American teenager applying for colleges. She wants to go further away from home, something I can relate to as I did the same thing but there’s clear implied affection for her hometown, something that other characters pick up on.

Lady Bird’s mother, who is described at one point as ‘warm and scary’, is played by the brilliant Laurie Metcalfe who’s also well-known for playing Sheldon’s mother Mary on ‘The Big Bang Theory’.

The entire family dynamics have a strong verisimilitude, either because they’re very well-observed or possibly as there’s a lot that’s based on Greta Gerwig’s adolescence.

Lady Bird has a Hispanic brother called Miguel, there’s a story there as he’s clearly adopted or fostered but the film doesn’t go into it, it hints but never feels the need to elucidate as it’s not important to the story or timeframe being told, probably a conversation that would’ve been had when she was younger but it’s not needed anymore, plus this is a piece of her story, not his. Her Dad played by Tracy Letts has a much quieter and smaller role but it’s still important, he’s particularly excellent and though his performance doesn’t stand out as much as Laurie Metcalfe’s it shouldn’t be overlooked.

There’s not a lot I didn’t like about this film but I can easily see how it hasn’t worked as well for some people, especially if they don’t connect with the characters. Potentially, the narrative on its own may not be engaging enough as there’s really nothing outstanding about the story itself, no engrossing narrative to interest audiences if they don’t like or relate to the characters and want to spend two hours watching their lives play out. It’s primarily a character study, the focus of the film is the life experiences of the characters depicted, not any huge dramatic events or inciting incidents. Because of that, I imagine if you don’t invest in Lady Bird and her life within the first half hour or so, it’s very unlikely to win you over by the end.

There’s a handful of ‘coming-of-age’ films that have a timeless quality thanks to the way they effectively tap into universal experiences and themes of adolescence, rather than relying on era or location-specific points. This effectively does that, and so stands a great chance of being one of those enduring successes, though the only way of knowing for sure is seeing if it proves itself over time.

Widely nominated by essentially every awarding body, this was up for BAFTAs in categories including both actress types and Original screenplay but didn’t win any awards. The same happened at the Oscars a few weeks later where it was nominated for 5 Academy Awards including the key category of Best Director for first-time director Greta Gerwig and Best Picture. Nonetheless, missing out on trophies in no way diminishes the quality of the film with some excellent writing, direction and performances.

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