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.

 

 

 

Happy Death Day (Landon; 2017)

Movies which use the same central conceit as Groundhog Day, that is that a person is reliving the same day over and over again, are becoming regular enough that it’s beginning to become a small sub-genre of its own.  Since the original we’ve had Run, Lola, Run which is different from the original in that Lola isn’t really experiencing the day over and over, the audience is just being shown the same scenario in different ways it could have played out.  Then, there is Edge of Tomorrow (Live, Die, Repeat) in which Tom Cruise relives the same day over and over due to having inherited the powers of an alien, and learns that he is not the first to have gained this power.  In ARQ a science experiment causes a time loop which has a couple of scientists and a crew of mercenaries raiding their laboratory to relive the same day over and over.  So far, the premise has continued to hold up as in each incarnation a new, interesting twist is thrown in to keep the story intriguing in a different way.  Now we have Happy Death Day, which is a film about Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) who starts the day waking up in a strange bed in a dorm room after a night of heavy drinking and ends the day by getting murdered by a person in a mask.  This day also happens to be her birthday, and she keeps reliving it over and over again.

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A film like this relies heavily on the talent and charisma of its star.  Jessica Rothe (if she seems familiar, she was the blonde roommate of Emma Stone in La La Land) does have charisma aplenty, but it’s a little hard to determine the depths of her talent.  She does chew the scenery splendidly in Happy Death Day, bringing us a truly over-the-top bad stereotype level sorority bitch as the movie starts and becoming more of a decent person as the film goes on, but this is a film that isn’t interested in the least in realism, nuance, and honest character development.  To her credit, Rothe seems to recognize this and revels in her role for what it is – a walking talking plot device we are meant to root for rather than a fully fleshed out person.  She starts as a stereotype and as the movie moves forward just changes which stereotype she is for reasons that aren’t reasonably explained.  Given that’s what she has to work with, she does as admirable a job as anyone could be expected to.

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Scott Lobdell’s screenplay is another element of Happy Death Day which almost seems to revel in its imperfection.  Happy Death Day very obviously knows what kind of movie it is, going so far as to compare itself out loud to Groundhog Day at one point, and so it plays on the audience’s expectations of what they expect from a time loop movie.   The way it plays with the audience is both clever and fun, but it isn’t internally consistent.  Changes to a person’s character just happen because that’s what these movies do, not because the story gives us a real reason.  The film definitely has fun with and gives us a decent twist on the sub-genre, but it isn’t smart enough to always (and, the always is important here – sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t) incorporate those twists in a way that meshes with the story line, and can even seem counterintuitive to it.

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The most important factor of Happy Death Day, though, despite its many flaws and inconsistencies is that it is an entirely self aware movie.  It knows it exists simply to allow its audience to have fun via scares and playing around with our expectations.  Those things it does very well, and while I would have liked to see more from it in particularly the characterization department, I also don’t know what restrictions the cast and crew had to work with.  Perhaps this is a case of focusing almost entirely on the main thing the movie wants to do and letting other factors slide was the wise and not the lazy choice.  I’ll never know, but I do know that Happy Death Day is a film that is a ton of fun most of the time despite its flaws.

Final verdict:  While I wouldn’t quite classify Happy Death Day as a horror comedy, it is such a fun, unpretentious film that it will most definitely scratch that itch should you have it.  Its characters are shallow and change purely because in a plot like this you expect them to, but I can’t deny that all the actors here are charming and likable.  This is the exact opposite of the movie you should go to if you are looking for anything with any level of heft or depth at all, but if you like campy horror meant more to make you jump and laugh than to disturb or scare, then Happy Death Day is a surprisingly fun ride.

 

The Edge of Seventeen (Craig; 2016)

In her film The Edge of Seventeen writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig gives us a film with less a plot and more a series of life events that play out over the course of several weeks.  In her performance as Nadine, Hailee Steinfeld (you may recognize her as the girl who at age 14 was nominated for an Academy Award for her turn as Mattie Ross in the Coen Brother’s True Grit remake) gives us less a protagonist and more a point of view through which we experience these events.  The Edge of Seventeen is a slice of life film, one that doesn’t worry so much about classic plot construction and conflict, and more about showing us a character, a tumultuous time in that character’s life, and the way they develop in response.

Our main character Nadine is a smart, but very self conscious and awkward girl who tends to view everything in her life in the negative and believes she only has one friend in the whole world.  This one friend is Krista, played by Haley Lu Richardson.  Krista has been Nadine’s best friend since second grade, so she is close not only to Nadine, but to her entire family, which since the death of her father (Eric Keenleyslide) consists of her near perfect brother Darian (Blake Jenner) and her wreck of a mother (Kyra Sedgewick).  Rounding out the cast are her teacher and confidant Mr. Bruner (Woody Harrelson) and the guy who sits next to Nadine in class who has a crush on her, Erwin (Hayden Szeto).  The cast is wonderful, truly understanding these characters and really bringing them to life in realistic fashion. Most real enough to be familiar, but distinct enough that none seem like a stereotype, and are characters worth investing in.  I say  most because Haley Lu Richardson as Krista is the one performance that stands out as bland, fake, and amateurish marring what otherwise is a spectacular ensemble performance.

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But, just look how cute her smile is.

The actors would have had a harder time giving us such fantastic performances, though, if they weren’t given an equally fantastic screenplay to work with.  Everything is absolutely pertinent to anyone who has attended high school or had a family, yet it still has sharp dialogue that never seems too much nor out of place, great pacing even though there really is no climactic event to be building toward, and very thorough and realistic development of character with not a single person being quite the same at the end as they were at the start, yet none changing purely to further a plot device, it’s all organic and natural yet still often surprising.

One of the very notable problems, if you can call it that, with The Edge of Seventeen is the very Hollywood problem of casting people far too suave and good looking to really be taken seriously as loner outcasts.  Hailee as Nadine sort of pulls it off, as one of the primary themes of the movie is that we often make our own problems and push others away due to self absorption, but it still seemed to me that in any normal high school she would at least be in the popular clique if not the queen bee herself, and this problematic trope really stands out with Hayden Setzo as Erwin.  When you have abs that would make most gymnasts jealous, a fashion model face, and millionaire parents, I don’t think you would be viewed as a geek who has to hide in your bedroom and draw cartoons to get through life.  Sure, another of the big messages in the movie is that no one is a sterotype, the outcasts among us aren’t as lonely as they think and the popular kids still have problems, but there is not a single person in this entire high school who seems like they wouldn’t have scores of ardent admirers in any real high school in America.

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Don’t we look like people forced to hide in janitors closets to avoid bullies?

The Edge of Seventeen probably won’t go down in history as a classic of the high school coming of age genre, but it really is an excellent example of one all the same.  There is nothing here truly unique or original, but it is so magnificently well done, it really doesn’t have to be to still pull you in and get you heavily invested in its characters.   It’s incredibly difficult to make a character that over the space of only a couple hours frustrates you to no end, yet whom you still just want to hug and help out in any way you can, and Hailee pulls off that very difficult stunt in her turn as Nadine.  After True Grit, I’d wondered what had happened to her as I saw in her someone who had amazing potential. I’m very glad to see she’s back, and that potential is still there and very much being realized.

Rating:  7.2 out of 10

(I do realize Hailee Steinfeld was also in Pitch Perfect 2, but….  I haven’t seen it yet.  I know, I know.)