Monday, 12 March 2018

Greta Gerwig’s Beautiful “Lady Bird”

Simply put, Greta Gerwig’s second feature as a director (and her first as sole director), as well as the sixth feature she’s written, Lady Bird, displays a sharp perception and emanates a warm tenderness to an uncommon degree in contemporary movies. This may not be surprising, and yet is something remarkable, because Gerwig has conceived of and executed a story rooted in her own experiences and linked to her own biography. Filmmakers often find new sides to their artistry when filming something from their own experiences, but many of them — perhaps to protect the parts of themselves they see as most vulnerable — end up coating their vision in hazy nostalgia, easy and stereotypical preconceptions, or rigid and unyielding methods of representation. Gerwig avoids these pitfalls, and arrives at a work of authentic and probing thought as well as exquisite emotional insight. If we’re to count it as a directorial début, it’s certainly one of the great ones of recent years, along with Jordan Peele’s in Get Out, and Yance Ford’s in Strong Island. Her work is more than remarkable: it’s beautiful, and accomplished with the whimsical charm and presence, and practically Mozartian grace that we have come to expect from her as an artist.

Lady Bird follows a student named Christine (Saoirse Ronan) — who has given herself the nickname “Lady Bird” — through her final year of high school at a Catholic girls school in Sacramento, California, from the start of her senior year in the autumn of 2002 through to the start of the next year when she arrives at college in the autumn of 2003. It’s not strictly or literally autobiographical, according to Gerwig — none of the events in the film are taken directly from her life — but the connection to actual experiences is both conspicuous and touching. Like Lady Bird, Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, went to a Catholic girls school, exhibited “a performative streak” as she grew up, and went to college in New York City. (Christine is also Gerwig’s mother’s name.) What’s touching is the deep personal care with which she has crafted each of her characters as well as the atmosphere surrounding them and the events they go through. Lady Bird’s relationship and interactions with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) — a nurse, as Gerwig’s mother was — are central to the plot, though scenes with her classmates, her friends, her romantic interests, her father, her brother, and her teachers are not merely subplots, but integral to the main thrust of the story.

The simplest way I can think of to enumerate Lady Bird’s virtues is in contrast to Call Me By Your Name, which I saw right before it, and whose filmmakers had hoped to occupy a similar place in the market: that of a young person discovering themself and their place, through romance and (in Lady Bird, at least) through many other things. Unlike Luca Gaudagnino and James Ivory, Gerwig doesn’t flaunt her characters’ cultural sophistication, but explicitly demonstrates Lady Bird’s ignorance and aspirations, together with her friends and family’s indifference to the very thing that is essential to Call Me By Your Name’s appeal, though it goes unexamined and unquestioned in that movie. Gerwig engages in actual observation of a location and her characters’ varying experiences of it, rather than exploiting cultural associations and the near-sighted indulgence in easy luxury. The grainy look of the film (which was achieved digitally to give the look of older photographs and film stock, appropriate for Gerwig’s mode of remembering) evokes nostalgia, as it does in Call Me By Your Name, but deepens Gerwig’s introspection rather than cheapening any emotional effect. The subplot in Lady Bird of a gay character undergoing his own developmental issues, including romantically, is introduced and progressed with more surprise, greater empathy, and deeper interest than Gaudagnino’s entire film. The hyper-literate twink played by Timothée Chalamet has much to say here about what he reads, what he watches, where he goes, and what he believes, unlike Elio in Call Me By Your Name, who showed barely any care or interest at all in anything he did that wasn’t Armie Hammer. Nobody here is credulously blessed with benignly loving and permissive parents, nor the practical and narrative conveniences of an aristocratic station and inheritance.

What Gerwig stated as her intentions for Lady Bird was for it to be a female counterpart to “tales like The 400 Blows and Boyhood.” Not reaching the stature of Truffaut’s 1959 classic and masterpiece is hardly a failure for any filmmaker, but I think it can be said that her she has surpassed her aim of equalling the achievements of Boyhood. Unlike in Richard Linklater’s similarly personal film, Lady Bird’s mother, however concerned and helpful and well-meaning, may make many mistakes, and may repeat them, and is endowed with a personality shaded in hues other than angelic. The character is not a criticism or a rebuke, but an attentive, even loving, portrait of someone hoping to bring about progress and happiness for her family, even as she’s allowed to sometimes fall back on selfish tendencies and methods. And Lady Bird herself (again, in contrast to the main character in Boyhood) is often unpleasant, self-centred, and self-righteous (and even indulges an impulse of casual, sneering racism against her adopted older brother), but none of it abases Gerwig’s vision, nor her love.

Gerwig’s emotional world, which she arrives at by filling out her characters’ worlds with an abundance of detail and specificity, feels wonderfully accurate. Lady Bird is in search of experience throughout her exploits in the film, perhaps to fuel some artistic aspirations she has, and perhaps to strengthen what she hopes could be a connection between herself and greatly sophisticates of American cultural life. It leads to what a teacher calls her “performative streak,” and is also behind her strong desire both to study on the East Coast, where the great writers and artists lived and worked, and to be as far away as possible from her family, particularly her mother, who she feels hinders her potential for worldly growth. Her eventual discoveries, along similar terms, as well as a host of others, are brought about through masterly dramatic and narrative conception. And Gerwig created the images to surpass this literary accomplishment. Her fortitude and originality — not merely in thought, in storytelling, or in practical industry terms, but in her being — are what make it beautiful.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this movie! I also found the fact that it is the only indie coming-of-age film whose protagonist wasn’t an angsty, pretentious know-it-all refreshing and more believable. I haven’t seen Call Me By Your Name, but it sounds like it fits into that mould.


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