Lady Bird (Gerwig; 2017)

Lady Bird has a lot in common with last year’s The Edge of Seventeen.  Both are teen movies focused on a central female character going through one of their last years of high school (Junior year in The Edge of Seventeen, Senior year in Lady Bird).  Both movies are smaller independent films.  Both movies feature the mother-daughter relationship of their primary character prominently, and most importantly neither movie views their protagonist as an angel, a tortured soul, nor a lovable scamp as is the standard for teen movies as long as the genre has existed.

There is one very significant and important difference (well, more than one, but one I’m going to mention) between the two, and that is while The Edge of Seventeen is so far as we know purely fictional, Lady Bird is the semi-autobiographical story of its writer and director Greta Gerwig.  Greta Gerwig is not the biggest of names in Hollywood, but she has acted in 40 films, written 10 screenplays, and Lady Bird marks her second appearance in the director’s chair, so while the name may not immediately be recognizable it’s probable you’ve at least seen her before.  As the last film I reviewed Roman J. Israel, Esq. showed, it’s very difficult for a writer/director to keep the distance from his own work needed to bring it an objective, critical eye, and I can’t imagine how much more difficult it must be when not only are you writing and directing the movie but also that that movie is about yourself in a transformational year of your life.  Greta Gerwig not only manages it, though, she truly impresses and makes it look effortless.

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The one thing character studies have in common is, of course, their focus on a character and his or her personal journey.  They can have a standard plot in which the arc of the character mirrors a standard story arc complete with all the classic elements of story writing.  Or, they can be a more slice of life style piece in which putting the audience in the characters place is what is most important.  Lady Bird manages to be both.  Gerwig takes a year of her life and manages to be self-aware and objective enough to make that year an honest, sometimes brutally sometimes heartwarmingly so, look at a teenage girl yearning for independence from her family, but scared and unsure of exactly how to go about doing so and what the consequences will be once she succeeds.  She also knows enough about storytelling and dramatic license to give the story structure we rarely see in a film that relies so much on being so true to life.  She obviously distanced herself from the story at least a little as our protagonist is named Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan)  and not Greta Gerwig, but however much she distanced herself it was enough to allow her to make a story that paces itself like big studio manufactured biopic but with the genuine intimacy of a small indie piece.  Its insight into the emotions and thoughts of a young woman right on the cusp of adulthood is as deep as I’ve ever seen in a teen film, but that insight never once causes the movie to lose its light-hearted, comic tone and thus it remains thoroughly entertaining at the same time it causes us to raise our eyebrows and stroke our chins in thought and discovery.

It probably goes without saying that when a film has great insight into its characters that it implies those characters avoid generalities and stereotype in any form, but Lady Bird does give us some very real characters that will most definitely be recognizable by all, but refuse to fit neatly into any sort of box we may want to put them in.  It’s a film which seems to instinctive understand the thoughts and emotions which motivate us and therefore gives us characters that act and react organically to the world and the people around them rather than to what would make the story interesting, but whether due to an incredible storytelling instinct or due to luck that the events of Gerwin’s life just happened to make for a Hollywood story, those very organic actions still lead to an engaging story with very recognizable moments of self-discovery and excitement.

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What I and many others loved about The Edge of Seventeen was how its central character was something of a self-absorbed jerk who made her own problems for the most part, and had plenty of people around her willing and wanting to help her but she refused them all purely so she could feel unique and make herself into a martyr.  When she discovers, in the end, the kind of person she was and manages to change it wasn’t entirely organic, but the message was such an insightful one, very unique Hollywood but all too familiar in real life, that it was refreshing to see it dealt with on the big screen.  Lady Bird gives us largely the same character and gives us largely the same message, but even more organically and taking the character study to the next level.  Lady Bird doesn’t just realize that this is a type of person we all deal with if we aren’t that person ourself, but it also gives more insight into why the self-imposed martyr feels they need to act that way and what it is that drives them to become so overly self-aware and self-absorbed.

One thing which Lady Bird does better than any film I’ve ever seen for sure is portray and understand the mother-daughter relationship.  I suppose never having been a teenage girl myself, I can’t speak to Lady Bird‘s authenticity in this regard with a great amount of authority, but I walked out of the theater feeling like I finally understood the feeling between mother and daughter that simultaneously makes them each others closest friends and also strongest rivals.  Never before had I so honestly seen the sort of tug of war involved in the mother-daughter relationship in which they at once become both a surrogate and a matter of pride for the other.  They each want the other to truly be their own person, but that comes into conflict with the fact that they would be happiest if that own person was exactly like themselves.

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It goes without saying at this point that I think the cast of Lady Bird was remarkable, but while I may not need to say it, I should and I find it odd that I’ve written this much without saying so.  Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” herself is at once hysterical and captivating.  She portrays a girl who obviously is unsure of herself in nearly every way but feels she needs to hide that fact from the world excellently.  But, as nuanced as her performance is, Laurie Metcalfe as”Lady Bird’s” mother Marion McPherson is astounding.  If I did not know better I would assume that these two really were a mother-daughter pair and these were not roles they are playing, but that they are legitimately being captured on film.  Metcalfe plays her role with such a genuine hysterical love I have only recognized before in a parent, that it’s obvious she’s not only drawing on personal experience but that she’s well aware of how she really acts and reacts in her personal experience.  Lucas Hedges as “Lady Bird’s” first real boyfriend, Tracy Letts as her father, Odeya Rush and Kathryn Newton as her on again off again best friends, and honestly too many more to name without making this review look like a list of names from the Old Testament are all absolutely fantastic in their roles.  Gerwin must not just be an excellent writer but is also amazing as a casting director or at getting the most out of actor’s performances, or both.

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Final verdict:  I could probably go on about Lady Bird, but I think you get the idea and this is already becoming the longest review I’ve ever written, so I’ll stop there.  As much as I gush about Lady Bird, it is not the best movie of the year, though it is definitely one of the best teen movies I have ever seen and a film which should appeal to nearly everyone but the most cynical.   It’s a film that relies entirely on its script and its performances, but when those are both so perfectly nuanced, insightful, funny, and entertaining that’s all you really need.  This is not Greta Gerwig’s first outing as a writer nor as a director, but this is the film for which she will be remembered for a very long time.  I wholeheartedly recommend Lady Bird to nearly everyone, and excitedly look forward to whatever Gerwig brings us next.

 

 

 

The Florida Project (Baker; 2017)

Take people from Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, and the other various Caribbean Islands, mix in a large elderly Jewish population, elderly people in general from all walks of life, a dash of college students looking to attend the nation’s most notorious party schools or just spend some time getting drunk and wearing skimpy clothes while on break, and family tourists also wanting some beach time and good clean amusement park fun, and you have the recipe for Florida.  It’s an unusual but not quite volatile mix resulting in a place which seems sickeningly sweet on the surface, but as you get past that surface you can see that things are often rancid.  The Florida Project is a slice of life film featuring the story of a young single mother (Halley played by Bria Vinalte) and her precocious but delinquent 6-year-old daughter (Moonee played by Brooklyn Prince) who live in a run-down hotel which exists on a strip in Orlando riddled with gaudily decorated souvenir and gift shops capitalizing on their proximity to Walt Disney World.  Also featured is Willem Dafoe as the hotel’s long-suffering but good-natured manager Bobby.

The Florida Project most definitely has a story it is telling, but it’s not one which is obvious until the film’s final frames as it is more concerned with just showing the everyday lives of its poverty-stricken but optimistic protagonists.  This is a film which is very much concerned with how a poor unemployed mother manages to pay for rent and food every week, but also showing what it is about her which could put such a beautiful, friendly person in the situation in which she’s found herself.  It’s a film which shows us how a 6-year-old girl who is smart and charming can see a world of tourists and poverty as a place which is still magical, adults are people who buy her ice cream, pranks are fun for everyone, and a hotel’s continental breakfast is the greatest thing on the planet.  The Florida Project much like the tourist traps just down the road from its action is far more concerned with an experience than with a plot.

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The only veteran actor in the film is Willem Dafoe, the rest of the cast is a ragtag bunch found via Instagram and talent agencies and are working for the first time on camera.  It’s amazing, then, that this cast is so adept at both standard acting and at improvisation.  It’s obvious that there are scenes which are both scripted and scenes which are completely off the cuff, but what is not obvious is which are which until the film is over and you can see where the audience is ultimately being led.  We expect this from Dafoe, but when Bria Vinalte riffs with her fictional daughter one second then gives an impassioned speech to her best friend the next, we know that there is some real natural talent on display.  Most impressive is 6-year-old Brooklyn Prince.  She has to give the audience its point of view and also act as the film’s emotional core, and you know when she is conning tourists at the ice cream stand or running with her friends through the Orlando landscape that she is “just being a kid”, but then when she shows she can also shatter our hearts into pieces with one of the most realistic and affecting emotional breakdowns ever put on screen we see that this child truly is an actor, as well.

Sean Baker, the director of The Florida Project, is not yet a household name, but if he continues his trend of giving us visual dynamic films with a twist of the innovative he may soon be.  He has given us a film shot entirely on an iPhone (Tangerine) and even when not using a gimmick (I prefer to call it an experiment) he shows he has an eye which excels at framing the people who are the true focus of his attention, but which can also step back and show us the character of the landscape these people are framed against.  The Florida Project is absolutely gorgeous, but it also artistically captures the emotion of the impoverished areas near the Magic Kingdom accurately and impressively expressing its vibe of equal parts whimsy and desperation.   The only film this year that can match the impressive cinematography of The Florida Project is Blade Runner 2049, and that film had a large budget and special effects to lean on.  The Florida Project has no such crutches.

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The Florida Project may not have a very specific story to tell, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot to say.  Its characters are flawed, but not so flawed that we can’t identify with them, and this is the most important take away to come out of the movie.  This film is meant to show us a culture which may be slightly foreign to us, but the characters themselves are people we know very well, if not mirror images of ourselves.  They are caring, loving, occasionally thoughtless, scrabbling to get through life without a clear set of rules to follow and with ruts easily fallen into.  They aren’t pure altruists, but they do love people and are attached to those closest to them even if that attachment isn’t healthy or helpful and they know it.  The Florida Project is not meant to be escapism, but it is meant to remove you from your own life and see the world through someone else’s eyes, a child’s eyes, for a couple of hours, and in that it succeeds.

When I lived in Florida, I used to joke that people went there to retire not because of the weather – while it is warm, it’s also constantly humid and subject to being battered by tropical storms and hurricanes on a semi-regular basis – but because Florida gives the illusion that while you are there time doesn’t pass.  It’s a comforting but dangerous illusion which is at the center of Florida living.  The Florida Project captures the essence of that part of Florida life perfectly, leaving us with an appreciation of the honestly gorgeous nature left in the state, a mix of whimsy and shame at the superficial gaudiness humans have inflicted on that nature, and deep distress at what life in that state has done to those who can’t seem to escape it.

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Final verdict:  If you like a strong dose of reality in your films, an authenticity which sees its characters just trying to get through life and not as plot devices, then The Florida Project will most definitely appeal.  To those who are more interested in film for its entertainment value, this is a little tougher of a sell.  There is entertainment to be had in Moonee’s antics and in the complex relationships between Moonee, Bobby, and Halley, but it’s not the entertainment of a standard story with complications to be overcome, villains to be defeated, and rousing finishes.  The Florida Project is gorgeous and artistic, it’s charming and thoughtful and very emotional, but it is not exciting nor gripping.  If you liked last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight, then I think you will enjoy this, as well, as they have a lot in common including the setting.  If you didn’t get why Moonlight was a big deal, you probably won’t see a lot in The Florida Project, either.