Lady Bird (2017): Honest Transition to Adulthood

After starring in and often co-writing several independent comedies and dramas, Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) finally makes her solo directorial debut. Having worked with many talented directors, her style bears some similarities to her previous collaborators, especially Noah Baumbach, but she has a voice all her own. Her first outing confirms her as a genuine talent able to bring intimate stories to life. Lady Bird follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan; Brooklyn) through her last year of high school as she deals with the trials and tribulations that come along with transitioning to adulthood and independence.

With her vibrant reddish hair and anarchic mindset, Lady Bird is the epitome of an awkward teen. She is clearly an intelligent young woman, but doesn’t have good grades or the right look and attitude to fall into the popular crowd. She wants to escape Sacramento and go to a college on the east coast, but doesn’t have the resume or money to do so. She longs to become someone more than she is. Someone more sophisticated than her current self. Ronan plays Lady Bird as equal parts defiant and confused as she stumbles through the ups and downs of her life. There are moments when her American accent falters, particularly when yelling, but overall it holds up nicely. She is essentially a younger version of the character type that Gerwig almost exclusively plays and her youth, and the naivete that comes with it, make her flaws all the more sympathetic.

Lady Bird’s often explosive relationship with her mother is the central conflict of the film.

Gerwig may have created the first coming of age story about a millennial, by a millennial. From the introduction of cell phones – rich kids first, of course – to the Justin Timberlake songs in the background of a party, the details of the setting ring painfully true to anyone who grew up in the period. Despite being shot digitally, Gerwig adds a noticeable film grain and a uses a softer focus that drenches the film in her nostalgia for the past. While she has stated that the film is not based on specific events from her life, it’s hard to shake the feeling that we are watching a fictionalized version of her own adolescence.

More than anything else, Lady Bird feels honest. Gerwig’s approach to her characters is reminiscent of the great Edward Yang (Yi Yi). She exposes the flaws, beauty, and heartbreak of ordinary people, normally hidden from view. Lady Bird’s struggles at school, with boys, and, most of all, her complicated relationship with her mother have a gentle, but raw veracity. Her bland suburban life isn’t glamorized, and each moment is immensely relatable. She may be deliberately contrarian, but she does so in a way that is too familiar for us to fault her. Each outburst or fight with her mom comes from deep-seeded insecurity. As a teenager facing adulthood, Lady Bird is searching for belonging in a changing world and Gerwig has a deep compassion for journey. Her sensitive touch and nostalgic tone make Lady Bird a beautiful, refreshingly honest, and poignant coming of age story for a new generation.

five stars

5/5 stars.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017): Snark and Sentimentality

To prevent her daughter’s murder from falling out of the public eye and increase the chance of finding the culprit, Mildred (Frances McDormand; Fargo), a jumpsuit-wearing, no-nonsense, foul-mouthed mom, buys the titular billboards. She details the horrific crime and simultaneously places the blame for the lack of justice on the shoulders of the beloved local police chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson; Zombieland). Chaos follows as local policeman try to save face, local townspeople retaliate, and Mildred doubles down on her cause. Many will compare this film to Fargo because of McDormand and the small-town murder, but this is writer-director Martin McDonagh’s (In Bruges) signature brand of humor, distinct from the Coens. Mildred’s caustic behavior and McDonagh’s penchant for finding comedy in the macabre put it in a category of its own.

Without a doubt, this is McDormand’s film. There are few people who would be brash enough to knowingly anger and take on their entire town, but McDormand shows the tenacity and blatant disregard needed to make Mildred believable. As she faces the fallout from her actions, Mildred’s relentless pursuit of her goal and her choice, delectably obscene retorts are a joy to watch. At same time, she is still a mother suffering from the loss of her child and McDormand is able to display the subtle cracks of pain in Mildred’s otherwise thorny demeanor.

Mildred can stare down anyone that gets in her way.

For the first time in his film career, McDonagh tries to infuse some of the emotion from his best plays (read The Pillowman if you haven’t). In his previous films, the snarky, almost crass language, while often hilarious, prevented his stories from having a greater emotional impact. In Three Billboards, he supplements his humor with grief. The pain of a mother losing her daughter softens Mildred’s abrasiveness and prevents her aggressive, often militant actions from turning her into an outright unlikable character, but McDonagh finds most success in Willoughby’s story. Despite his setup as an incompetent police chief, Willoughby’s true nature is much more caring. As the terminally ill town leader and, more importantly, a father and husband, his inescapable fate becomes synonymous with the outcome of Mildred’s case. Willoughby has been searching for the killer, but, like with his cancer, his efforts haven’t made a difference. A short interlude where he ponders his demise will draw tears from most viewers. His gradual accretion of depth in the midst of the film’s otherwise eccentric antics is an unexpected, but welcome punch to the gut.

The effect of this gravitas is hindered by McDonagh’s control of tone. Rather than mixing the humor with the heart, these two emotions exist within separate spheres of influence. They don’t actively clash, but the disparate tones almost seem like different takes on the same story. Some scenes feature Mildred cursing like a sailor while others show the open wounds created by her daughter’s passing, but almost never both in the same scene. This is ultimately what prevents Three Billboards from reaching greatness. The humor of the film is still enjoyable and the grief shown has an impact, but without blending the two, McDonagh can’t achieve the complexity and balance needed to tackle the subject matter.

3/5 stars.