Lady Bird (2017)
Dir.: Greta Gerwig
Greta Gerwig has made a name for herself in recent years writing and acting in comedies from Noah Baumbach, particularly the black and white New York dramedy Frances Ha in 2012. She quickly developed a devoted fan base that praised her to no end, and made fantastic events upon every project she ventured in. I was never one of these people, and I was not particularly impressed with Frances Ha, despite being a fan of Noah Baumbach and appreciating the direction. But, tons of people were impressed with Gerwig, so much so that she was trusted to write and direct her feature film debut Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan and a bunch of other people. Pretty much the same thing that happened to Frances Ha is happening with this film, in that heaps and heaps of critical acclaim and "best film of the year" proclamations abound across print and web media. With Greta behind the director's chair instead of acting, does this film live up to its hype?
Not really. It is a good film. Unfortunately, it takes a lot of coming-of-age cliches and familial drama tropes and tosses them together in a fruit salad of good segments but no cohesive narrative whole.
At its core, Lady Bird is a coming of age film that is loosely based upon Greta Gerwig's teenage years in Sacramento, California. There are a lot of nods to the particular locale, and much of the film is spent on promoting Sacramento as an overlooked, underappreciated part of California (one gag even references how people confuse the town with San Francisco.) There is also a pretty wide cast of characters, both friendly and familial, in protagonist Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson's inner circle, which grows bigger as the film progresses. The film is a little more ambitious than a standard genre contribution, as it shows her relationships with every character in the film, and how she squashes some relationships, is relinquished of others, and heals former squashed ones again. Because of this breadth of scope, the film sacrifices a lot of potential depth and character development, as though the argument could be made that Christine develops over the course of the film, in reality she just flip flops from one extreme to another. Lady Bird's narrative is unfortunately a hot mess, but it at least has one recurring narrative theme: that of discovering your identity upon entering the "real world." In this, the film saves itself with a well-formed beginning and ending, but the second act meanders far too much, preventing it from becoming a genre classic in the vein of the John Hughes, Gus Van Sant, and even fellow collaborator Noah Baumbach films it takes inspiration from.
The acting in the film is perhaps its strongest asset as Saoirse Ronan kills yet another great lead performance. Her performance as Lady Bird (Christine's nickname that she demands to be called) remains magnetic and enthralling, even when the film is at its dullest and most uneventful. Laurie Metcalf and Lucas Hedges also perform well in their roles, and Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird's best friend also presents a breakout performance from her. Tracy Letts is good but a little underutilized. Above all its flaws and needlessly expository scenes, the scenes with Ronan and Metcalf throwing verbal daggers at each other remains investing throughout the film's runtime. Though the film's just over 90 minutes, it does tend to drag whenever Lady Bird interacts with some side characters, particularly Odeya Rush and Timothee Chalamet's characters. Both of these performances are pretty terrible, as Gerwig no doubt directed them to act tough and like a cool high school kid from the 70s, rather than from the early 2000s in which they grew up. I also grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, and many of their phrases and expressions felt borrowed from a different time period in a much older film. I did not buy the scenes with these characters, I was not sold on their performances, and this whole arc where Lady Bird tries to fit in with the "cool kids" in the ultimate coming-of-age cliche diversion really dragged the film down for me. Thankfully these performances are the only ones I had major issues with.
As this is Greta Gerwig's directorial debut, and her directing style is not fully formed yet, it's tough to complain about the barebones cinematography and editing. It's generally well done but it has no flair or particular standout attributes that we can identify as unique to her imprint. The film shares a lot of Baumbach-isms with quickfire editing in the middle of a punchline that redirects a smash cut to another joke or scene, and it works generally well. One aspect of the film that I was looking forward to was its score, performed by Jon Brion, my personal favorite film composer of all time. I can't really blame him for phoning it in for this one, as I'm sure Gerwig's direction called for more of a barebones approach, but he does not really bring anything to the table here. He's done several generic comedy film scores in the past few years, and I was really hoping to a return to his glory days of Punch-Drunk Love and Eternal Sunshine in terms of phenomenal audio considering the talent involved here, but alas, this fits as one of his weaker scores. I was overall disappointed with the audio here as nothing really impresses other than a few licensed tracks used to surprisingly good effect. Gerwig is able to make "Crash Into Me" by Dave Matthews Band fit a scene. I've only ever seen one other director use a normally annoying song this effectively (Xavier Dolan in Mommy, using Oasis's Wonderwall) so this was a welcome surprise. Lady Bird sacrifices style for scale here, but perhaps Gerwig's future films will present more ambition.
Overall, Lady Bird is a competent, if uneven watch. It's not that I have a dislike for small-scale indie dramedy. Though they are frequent in the streaming age, films like The Meyerowitz Stories have shown that they can present surprising contributions to the genre. I just don't get why Gerwig is so popular and why everything she is attached to, while it is generally good, is hailed as masterful. To me, this would be like calling Will Ferrell the greatest comedic actor since Peter Sellers: sure, he's generally funny, but not quite on that level or as deserving of such a legacy. Alas, I seem to be in the minority here, as you may end up loving Lady Bird just like most others seem to. It's a competent film, but I don't think it presents anything exemplary, other than maybe Ronan's acting ability. It's alright.