Lady Bird


There’s always a little love/hate in every mother-daughter relationship.

(2017) Dramedy (A24) Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Timothée Chalamet, Lucas Hedges, Odeya Rush, Kathryn Newton, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Laura Marano, Andy Buckley, Danielle Macdonald, Jordan Rodrigues, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Kristen Cloke, Daniel Zovatto, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Bob Stephenson, Marielle Scott, Chris Witaske, Suzanne LaChasse.  Directed by Greta Gerwig

 

Adolescence is a difficult period. We all undergo it; we don’t all survive it. We muddle through as best we can as we learn to find out who we are and hopefully, who we want to become. It’s a wonder that any of us live to be 21.

Christine McPherson (Ronan) insists that people call her “Lady Bird.” That isn’t her name; she just likes the sound of it. A high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school in suburban Sacramento, California, she is chafing at the bit to get free of the Great Central Valley and move somewhere sophisticated and cultured i.e. New York. Her mother Marion (Metcalf) would prefer that Lady Bird stay somewhere local, mainly because that’s about all the family can afford. At least Marion can take comfort in that her daughter, who is surprisingly smart, doesn’t really have the grades to get into any schools she really wants to go to.

Lady Bird has a fairly small circle; in addition to her mother with whom she has a contentious relationship, there’s her brother Miguel (Rodrigues) who graduated college but has only been able to find a job bagging groceries and her father Larry (Letts) who is as loving and kind as her mother is critical and demanding. Lady Bird’s bestie Julie Steffans (Feldstein) is, like herself, from the wrong side of the tracks. Julie is, like Lady Bird, on the outside looking in on the popularity scale.

Like most girls her age, Lady Bird is very interested in boys but they mystify her. She doesn’t really know how to act around them or to let them know she likes them. She’s also interested in sex but she wants it on her terms. I think it’s pretty much safe to say that Lady Bird wants to live life in all its aspects on her own terms which at 17 isn’t necessarily an unusual thing. She will explore different aspects of high school life, experience all sorts of different things both good and bad and continue to work towards her goal of going to college in New York, as hopeless a goal as it may seem.

The term “coming of age film” can cover a whole lot of sins but in this case, it is truly apt. We actually see real growth (as opposed to Hollywood growth which is generally unearned) in Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, riding the director’s chair solo for the first time in her career, does a bang-up job. Although only semi-autobiographical (Gerwig has gone on record that this is more emotionally autobiographical than factually so) there is an air of authenticity to it. If Lady Bird isn’t Gerwig she’s certainly a cousin and that’s not a bad thing.

Ronan and Metcalf both turn in performances that have legitimate shots at Oscar nominations. When mother and daughter are going at it the screen just about crackles with electricity. Marion loves her daughter passionately but doesn’t always express that love in healthy ways. She’s outspoken (like her daughter) and hyper-critical which is definitely not appreciated. Larry does his best to mitigate things but he’s a little intimidated by Marion as well and when he loses his job he clearly begins to doubt himself although that’s an aspect of the story that isn’t explored thoroughly. Then again, it’s not Larry’s story – it’s Lady Bird’s.

In a sense this is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up and where this is set). Although Lady Bird complains about the provincialness of the city, it’s clear that Gerwig has a great deal of affection for the place. Residents and regular visitors will recognize a lot of different landmarks and local hangouts shown at various times in the film. One can’t complain about a movie with this much love for the capitol of California.

There is a pretty frank portrayal of Lady Bird’s sexuality; she becomes attracted to two different guys during the course of the film and contemplates losing her virginity. The frank discussion of the event is going to feel familiar to most women, although those who find such things distasteful are going to have a difficult time with that particular scene. I suppose it is going to depend on how comfortable you are with sexual discussions.

Gerwig doesn’t get everything right. The ending feels a bit rushed and a little bit of a nonsequitir. Her move from one BFF to another one who is more shallow just so Lady Bird can get closer to a guy she’s interested in comes off as a little bit cliché and maybe a little bit out of character. However, those are relatively minor things and she does for the most part nail the film.

I commented on Facebook that everyone who has ever been an adolescent girl should see this and I stand by that. It is going to resonate deeply with most women who will recognize the situations and the character dynamics. Men are also going to enjoy this because they will also get a chance to laugh at some of the foibles of adolescent girls – and maybe get to understand the women in their lives just a teensy bit better. Sounds like a pretty good deal to me.

REASONS TO GO: The writing is smart and the characters realistic. You have to love a film that gives Sacto this much love.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending feels a little bit rushed.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, a lot of teen sexuality, some brief nudity and lots of teen partying.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lady Bird recently set a Rotten Tomatoes record for the most positive reviews without a single negative review – 164 consecutive positives and counting.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/28/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 94/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Girl Flu
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Gangster Land

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Fences


Denzel Washington and Viola Davis await that call from the Academy.

Denzel Washington and Viola Davis await that call from the Academy.

(2016) Drama (Paramount) Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Jovan Adepo, Stephen Henderson, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney, Christopher Mele, Leslie Boone, Jason Silvis, Toussaint Raphael Abessolo, Benjamin Donlow, John W. Iwononkiw, Cecily Lewis, Tra’Waan Coles, Theresa Cook, Cara Clark, Connie Kincer, Teri Middleton, Kelly L. Moran. Directed by Denzel Washington

 

“Some folks build fences to keep people out,” muses a character in this adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, “Other folks build fences to keep people in.” There’s truth to that but Fences actually posits a third option; some people build fences to barricade themselves against a life that has done nothing but disappoint them.

Troy Maxson (Washington) was once upon a time a great baseball player. Unfortunately for him, he was a great baseball player during a time when only white men were allowed to play in the major league. By the time Jackie Robinson opened that door, Troy was already forty years old and that ship had sailed. Now in his fifties, he lives in Pittsburgh working for the sanitation department, riding on the back of a garbage truck with his best friend Bono (Henderson). The truck drivers are all white and Troy is trying to become a sort of Jackie Robinson of garbage truck drivers, although truth be told he never thought much of ol’ Jackie.

He does have a home of his own, a castle with a tiny yard around which he’s fixing to build a fence. His wife Rose (Davis) is a heroic partner; she manages to smooth her husband’s rough edges and endures his petty rage with the patience of a saint. Much of his rage is directed at their son Cory (Adepo) who is a fine athlete in his own right, attracting attention of college football coaches for his prowess on the gridiron.

This does not sit well at all with Troy, no sir. He creates obstacles for his son to keep him from finding that success in sports that he himself was denied. Rose tries to keep the peace between the two men but the tensions are escalating. Troy’s musician son Lyons (Hornsby) from a different mother – back before Rose and Troy were a thing – also has Troy’s scorn, but Lyons has managed to get away. It seems that Troy’s tender side is reserved only for his wife, Bono and Troy’s younger brother Gabriel (Williamson) who fought in the war and ended up with brain damage.

Troy can be a charming storyteller but cracks are beginning to appear in the facade. We discover things about Troy that are less than savory, things even Troy won’t talk about and Troy often talks about his days as a young criminal going down the wrong path until Rose straightened him out. Rose endures everything, all the stories, all the tantrums, all the frustration but there comes a time when Troy does something that Rose cannot endure and all of a sudden those fences seem much taller and insurmountable than they ever have before.

The late playwright August Wilson won a Pulitzer for this play, the sixth in his ten-play Pittsburgh cycle. Wilson had ambitions of taking the play to Hollywood and in fact wrote a screenplay based on his own work but unfortunately passed away before it made it to the big screen. Once Washington got the rights to film this, he utilized the script (with a touch-up from producer Tony Kushner) which stays fairly faithful to Wilson’s original work.

That’s a double-edged sword. Some of the monologues don’t sound like real people speaking and give the movie a kind of stage-like feel. The claustrophobic feel of the yard and the house are functions of the pressing frustrations of Troy’s life but they also contribute to that feeling of watching a stage play rather than a movie. Really though that’s the film’s only flaw.

The movie is well-acted from top to bottom with Oscar-level performances by Washington and Davis, both of whom are almost shoo-ins to get nominations when they are announced tomorrow morning (as of this writing). Washington’s Troy is cocky, angry, sexy, engaging and equal parts bully and provider. He has given up some of his less savory ways but not all of them and he ends up threatening everything he built for himself because of it.

As good as Washington is, Davis is even better. Her performance has been called a supporting role and I suppose in some ways it is, but if we’re going to be honest Rose is one third of the focus here and in that sense she is part of an ensemble. There’s a confrontation between Rose and Troy, some of which is seen in the trailer, that is as riveting a scene as you’ll see this year or any other. Her frustrations of enduring her husband’s endless posturing, his anger and his refusal to take any accountability for his own shortcomings boils over and her anger is so palpable she is literally shaking as tears stream down her face.

It should be mentioned that Williamson’s performance here is very reminiscent of his work in Forrest Gump and may be even better. Gabriel is a damaged soul but child-like. Troy is his protector and Gabriel looks up to him with faith that is touching if misplaced. Williamson should get at least some consideration for a Supporting Actor Oscar although that might not happen in a very strong field in that category this year.

This is easily one of the best-acted films of the year. The source material is extremely powerful, examining family dynamics, rivalry between father and son and the frustrations of a life that didn’t go the way you wanted it to go. The setting brings racial inequality into the story but it is more of a background issue; this is about a family that is relatable to any who had a stern taskmaster for a father, or a mother who held things together. Those kinds of archetypes are very common in the African American community but they are also universal. My own father had some of Troy’s characteristics; a frustration that the life he envisioned for himself didn’t happen and there was a rivalry between us that at times made me believe that he would rather see me fail so that his own failures were somehow less painful. The thing that separated my father from Troy Maxson however was that he very clearly loved his children and would do anything for them, including work himself to death for them, and he was also able to express that love although perhaps not in ways that would be found acceptable today. He did the best he could in the times and culture he lived in and sometimes that’s all we are really able to get. The fences that keep the demons out are also the fences that can keep families together…or tear them apart. This is one of the year’s best.

REASONS TO GO: The performances by Washington and Davis are electrifying. A middle class African-American family of the 1950s is nicely captured. Wilson justly won the Pulitzer Prize for this; it is a play/film that truly makes you think.
REASONS TO STAY: The film feels a bit stage-y.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some foul language, some domestic violence, a little bit of suggestive sexuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  The five adult actors from the 2010 revival of the August Wilson play reprise their roles here; it went on to win the 2010 Tony Award for Best Revival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 78/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Bronx Tale
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Strad Style