Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Film Review: Greta Gerwig serves up a debut for the ages with the heartfelt Lady Bird

How do you write a film that is based on cliches but have it still feel entirely new? The answer is to write it so well, so touchingly and emotionally, that the cliches become more than just that. They become character defining, they feel personal to both character and auteur. Greta Gerwig's solo directorial debut Lady Bird is the perfect example of such film making. The number of cliches and conventions her coming of age film lands on couldn't be counted on two hands, and yet Gerwig writes them with a deft of touch - in just her first solo-penned script she displays an elegancy and a heart that most film makers struggle to find in their fourth, fifth, even sixth film.

There are a lot of ways to describe Lady Bird but very few of them will do Gerwig's film justice. It's a comedy about a girl called Lady Bird's (Saoirse Ronan, as reliable as ever) last few weeks before leaving high school, it's a love story between daughter and mother and the complicated relationship they share, it's a drama about a family trying to survive in difficult times. Gerwig has achieved the stunning feat of writing about five different films all at once and allowing every one of them to not only work but to deeply emotionally flourish. Yes, you probably would lose count of the number of cliches Gerwig presents here, but that number is minuscule compared to the number of times her film will resonate with you on a quietly but richly emotional level.

If a character in Lady Bird has more than three lines, the chances are they have an emotional pay off right around the corner: Lady Bird's brother's girlfriend talking about her relationship with Lady Bird's mother is reduced to just one scene but it hits home; her first real boyfriend is given a heartbreaking moment of devastating honesty after their abrupt break up; even the most minor characters like Lady Bird's drama teacher are allowed moments away from the A-plot to help us get to know them and their struggles. No person is too inconsequential for Gerwig's film, its a story of stunning simplicity but it lets every component have their own time in the spotlight. Lady Bird could be seen as a Linklater-esque hangout movie, but Gerwig practically redefines the genre - we hang out with Lady Bird, but we get to know everyone else too. There's just something wonderfully warm about a film that chooses to focus on so many people with so many stories, that every single emotional beat lands with the desired effect is nothing short of miraculous.

While Gerwig sets her sights far and wide in terms of emotional outreach, she never loses sight of the mother-daughter connection at her film's core. Lady Bird's relationship with her mother (played with such emotional honesty and genuine, undeniable vulnerability by Laurie Metcalf) is the root of the film, it's the one element that ties all of Lady Bird's actions together. She will do some questionable things across Lady Bird's brisk 90-minutes - although, wisely, nothing unfixable, Gerwig knows her limits - but the film repeatedly ties it back to Lady Bird's frustrating relationship with her mother. She acts out at school, ditches her best friend for the cooler gang, goes out of her way to annoy people - but Gerwig writes it all so carefully that we don't feel disconnected from Lady Bird as a character. Her actions, while intentionally questionable, remain funny and entertaining all while serving to strengthen the film's thematic and emotional centre.

Lady Bird and her mother have a difficult relationship that neither of them can even begin to understand how to go about fixing, and Gerwig's film doesn't skirt around the ramifications of such a family dynamic - but it's never all doom and gloom, either. When Lady Bird loses her virginity based on a lie, it's her mother that she runs crying to, and the two of them turn such an awful revelation into a bonding day for them. Gerwig seamlessly balances the bad stuff with the good, never getting bogged down in unnecessary manipulation or argumentation - it's a stunningly realistic series of events, and even more true to life is how her characters react to such notions. It all eventually builds to a series of sequences so emotionally charged that even thinking about them risks bringing the tears back to my eyes - Lady Bird may not have you sobbing loudly to yourself, but it makes a solid claim to be one of the most consistently, quietly emotional films in recent memory.

And it does this without losing humour or entertainment value, too. Gerwig has presented us with a film as uproariously funny as it is devastatingly emotional, as narratively simple as it is thematically complex. Her direction is sublime too, watch as she holds on a shot of boyfriend Kyle's dad as you realise a passing joke from earlier in the film suddenly transforms into something heartbreaking right before your eyes. Lady Bird feels inherently personal to Gerwig, and it results in a film that simply oozes love and care, but also sadness and unavoidable honesty. It captures the world and the moment beautifully, with an unmistakeable sense of how it feels to have your whole life ahead of you, even if at times it may not look or feel like it. Hold on, the film says, some people just aren't built happy. And that's okay, because you'll get there in the end.

In A Sentence

A stunning debut for writer-director Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is a beautifully written, painfully honest coming of age story that captures life and emotion in ways you might never have felt before.

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