Tag Archives: Greta Gerwig

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.

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

Filled with professional intellectuals and set in New York City, Maggie’s Plan initially comes off as a misplaced Woody Allen comedy but soon reveals itself to be a much kinder film than most of Allen’s body of work. Maggie (Greta Gerwig; Frances Ha) is a university faculty member intent on having a child, regardless of her current relationship status, until she enters an unexpected relationship with anthropology professor John (Ethan Hawke; Before Midnight). Unfortunately, John is married to Georgette (Julianne Moore; Still Alice), a needy and career focused fellow professor at a different school. As a result of their affair, John divorces Georgette and marries Maggie which leads to the child Maggie had been hoping for. After a few years of marriage, it becomes clear that Maggie and John are no longer working out, but instead of leaving like a sane person would do she creates the titular plan. Maggie notices that he still spends hours talking to his ex-wife and realizes that Georgette was indeed right for him. Together the two women create a scenario for Georgette and John to meet and hopefully rekindle their feelings for one another.

In a film with otherwise solid acting, Moore delivers one of the most hamstrung performances of her career. She has proven herself consistently reliable in a wide range of roles from an adult film star in Boogie Nights to a professor in Still Alice, but here she crashes and burns underneath a repulsive accent. Where is she supposed to be from…England? France? Germany? Is it just a speech impediment? Depending on the specific scene it could be any of those choices. Director Rebecca Miller (The Private Lives of Pippa Lee) was likely aiming to make Georgette appear more sophisticated but the gimmick is entirely unnecessary. Moore’s acting alone would have been convincing enough, but saddled with an accent that would make Tommy Wiseau jealous, her delivery detracts from an otherwise well-written character.

I have absolutely no idea where Georgette is supposed to be from.
I have absolutely no idea what accent Georgette is supposed to have.

Conversely, the character of Maggie is always enchanting. Her attempts at almost Machiavellian manipulation are softened by Gerwig’s performance as she imbues Maggie with a well-intentioned naivete. Maggie is not scheming to absolve herself of latent guilt about entering a relationship with a married man, but rather she’s genuinely trying to create what she perceives as the best outcome for him. Even as things go awry, she never blames anyone, never holds grudges, and instead compensates by taking charge of other people’s responsibilities. As she sacrifices her own desires to help others, it becomes clear that Maggie’s problem isn’t that she is too controlling, it’s that she cares too much about others.

Her empathy, even at her own expense, carries the film. The other characters are each selfish in their own way, but Maggie never has any personal goals beyond a strong relationship with her daughter and every scene with her toddler further exemplifies her affection for those around her. Just as a mother restructures her life for the betterment her child, Maggie adapts herself to take care of her loved ones. She doesn’t always have the most logical methods, but her heart is in the right place as she suffuses the film with her blissfully unaware charm.

4/5 stars.

Love & Friendship (2016)

Whit Stillman’s fifth feature in 16 years and his first period piece proves to be one his strongest efforts. Adapted from a novella by Jane Austen, the film follows Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsale; Underworld), a once wealthy widow, navigating the circles of high society in late 1800s England. Her high lifestyle is provided by the friends and family members she moves between as she uses her social skills to secure a better life for herself and her 16 year old daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark).

Calling them social skills is putting it lightly. Lady Susan has the gift of gab and is fully aware of her powers. She lies, feigns emotions, and uses every form of manipulation possible. With a few exceptions, she is able to cast a spell over her acquaintances to have them do her bidding. Her plan to maintain her posh life is to wed her daughter to the wealthy, kind, but clearly idiotic man, Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett; PhoneShop), and seduce her young, wealthy brother-in-law, Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel; Twilight Saga: Eclipse) into marrying her. Unfortunately for Lady Susan, the rest of her in-laws are aware of her methods and do everything possible to prevent her engagement to Reginald.

Stillman has always been interested in high society. In his debut film, Metropolitan, he explored the lives of what he called UHBs (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie), young wealthy aristocrats, and his characters even spent time discussing various pieces of Austen’s oeuvre. It’s clear that he and Austen share a love of the inner circles of the upper class. He takes full advantage of the setup from Austen’s book in creating his own vision. Stillman hones in on the minutiae of his character’s lives. He mines the excessive formalities of the time for full comedic effect. Characters often are polite to the point of laughable awkwardness. Their desire to remain polite leads to overlapping pleasantries that always entertain.

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Sir James’s winning smile more than makes up for his lack of intelligence.

The best example of this is with Sir James. Like the character Thor from Damsels in Distress (a college student who still doesn’t know his colors), Sir James repeatedly fails to understand even the most basic concepts. This combined with his jovial demeanor and desire to please cause several unnecessary – and hilarious – misunderstandings. He’s a moron, but he’s a sweet lovable moron that steals the show every time he’s onscreen.

Lady Susan on the other hand couldn’t be more different. Like Greta Gerwig’s character from Damsels in Distress, she is a crafty manipulator. “Facts are a terrible thing”, she tellingly says to her confidant played by Chloë Sevigny (American Psycho). She is so bought into her own lies that it becomes difficult to tell fact from fiction, but Beckinsale makes the character’s pathological dishonesty believable. Just as Lady Susan manipulates the people around her, she is also able to entrance the audience. We know what she’s doing, but she’s too damn good at it for us to care.

Whit Stillman and Jane Austen have shown themselves to be the perfect pairing for a comedy of manners. Her wheelhouse of high society England melds seamlessly with his signature humor. He takes the prim, proper idiosyncrasies of the time and his lead’s habitual chicanery and exaggerates them to the point of ridiculousness. Stillman uses Lady Susan’s verbose, elaborate lies to keep everyone spinning, but the tailspin – and the continuous laughs that come with it – are just too enjoyable to stop.

4/5 stars.