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.

 

 

 

Annabelle: Creation (Sandberg; 2017)

2016’s crop of horror movies was one of the best we’d seen in years if not decades.  It didn’t bring us any classics like Alien or The Shining, no, but the overall quality of films in the genre as a whole was a giant leap beyond what we’d been getting.  The best of those films, in my opinion, was Lights Out which was a truly scary film with smart characters, a plot not overly reliant on cheap tricks, and a higher purpose than just scaring its audience.  The biggest pleasant surprise of the horror genre, and really of any film for the whole year, was from Ouija: Origin of Evil which, as a prequel to the worst film of 2014 horror or otherwise, gave us a memorable and scary movie with realistic characters, intelligent writing, and a truly distinctive feel.  The horror movies of 2017 have continued the streak of better quality, but nothing so far has been as good as those two films.  With Annabelle: Creation being made by the director of Lights Out, David Sandbergand starring the ever so creepy Lulu Wilson form Ouija: Origin of Evil , however, things were looking like the true horror movie season could be starting out on a high note.

Annabelle: Creation, much like Ouija: Origin of Evil, is the prequel to a not so great 2014 horror movie (which itself was a prequel to a very good horror movie – The Conjuring) in which a family is terrorized by devil worshipers and an evil doll.  This is the story of how the doll came to be the conduit of evil which we see in the 2014 film.  Annabelle: Creation focuses on a group of girl orphans who are taken in by a couple who lost their own daughter twelve years earlier in an accident.  The patriarch of the family was once a toy maker and he keeps his daughter’s room exactly as it was when she died, though he warns the girls newly under his care to never, ever go into her room and that the door is to always stay locked.   Of course, one of the girls just can’t resist the temptation to go in, and when she does, the doll Annabelle is unleashed on the household.

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Annabelle: Creation is another prequel which stands head and shoulders above the film it is based upon.  Annabelle was a typical stupid horror movie which wouldn’t work if the characters acted like real people relying nearly entirely on obvious jump scares for its “horror”.  Which, of course, means it wasn’t really scary at all, merely surprising and surprising in a cheap manner, at that.    The prequel, while certainly not without its flaws and pitfalls, is much better written.  Seemingly incidental events are brought back later to haunt us making the power of the scare more intense when we can see the set up.  The characters seem like caricatures who make dumb decisions at times, but again, the movie often brings things back around shedding light on what earlier seemed like bad cliche giving the scares some poignancy, as well.  Not every bad horror stereotype present in the film gets this treatment, unfortunately, there are some jump scares which are merely jump scares, but it happens often enough that you get a bit of a wry smile when you realize that the film makers are playing off of your expectations.

The acting by the ensemble cast is also very well done, especially since so many of them are children.  Miranda Otto and Anthony LaPaglia are the most recognizable names in the cast, and they are both quite good as the Mullins, the creepy owners of the house turned orphanage, and both are able to give some nuance to the people who seem at first to be stereotypes.  Lulu Wilson and Talitha Bateman play the focal orphan girls of the story, and both are excellent child actors, with Wilson in particular managing to greatly differentiate herself from the role she played last year in a very similar movie showing that she isn’t just playing herself.  Bateman also needs commendation in her performance showing a character who has true self awareness, and this is something most children her age lack in themselves, let alone have the ability to project that quality onto a character they portray.  The remaining cast don’t stand out quite as much as these four, but all do great work at ably toeing the line between cliche and authenticity the film calls for, the only one standing out in a perhaps negative fashion being Stephanie Sigman as Sister Charlotte who avoids stereotype in her caretaker nun character by simply being dull.

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The type of horror on display here is not of the slasher variety, there is very little gore on display here, in fact, excepting for one particularly grisly scene which is probably what garners the film its R-rating.  The scares here are more of a fear of the supernatural unknown variety ala The Exorcist.  Annabelle: Creation doesn’t bring us anything truly new where scares are concerned.  Aside from the fact that charcter decisions are revealed to not be as silly and arbitrary as was first believed, the source of the horror here we’ve seen many times before.  That being said, it’s still about as well done as can be expected, utilizing perspective, pacing, and timing excellently to scare you even though you can see the scares coming.

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Final verdict: If you are a horror aficionado, Annabelle: Creation is a borderline must see film.  It’s a film that, while steeped in cliches of the genre, uses those cliches as well as they can possibly be used making for an interesting study if that’s your thing, or just a really fun scary movie if that’s more your style.  While those who aren’t horror movie buffs won’t enjoy this film quite as much, Annabelle: Creation still has respectable acting, interesting writing, and excellent technical work backing it up making for an experience you will most likely enjoy even if it’s your horror movie loving friend or significant other dragging you along to see it.  If you despise horror films, or just have a low tolerance for nightmare inducing images, then this is a film to avoid.  It’s a good example of the genre, but not one which will elevate itself to a status where all audiences will enjoy it, and it is horrific enough that I guarantee it will give all but the most jaded among us the creeps when the lights are out for a couple days afterward.