Lady Bird

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith

Director: Greta Gerwig

Writer: Greta Gerwig


Lady Bird has a note-perfect opening scene that accomplishes more than some movies do in their entire runtime. It features the titular Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) sitting together in a car. They are on their way back to their home in Sacramento after visiting a state university and are both in tears as they listen to the final seconds of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath audio book. In that brief moment they are emotionally in sync with one another, but that changes as soon as they start talking about Lady Bird’s future. Despite her mother’s wish that she go to an affordable in-state college, Lady Bird is impatient to leave Sacramento and travel to someplace like New York, “where the culture is”. This erupts into an argument that Lady Bird ends by jumping out of the running car. It sets exactly the right tone, packs so much humour and conflict in the mother-daughter exchange, and ends in such a jarringly unexpected way that if Lady Bird had ended up being nothing more than a five-minute short film, I still would have been satisfied.

There’s plenty more to come though. We next see Lady Bird being fitted with a cast on her arm and proceed to follow her as she completes her final year at school. Over the course of that year Lady Bird joins the school’s theatre programme with her best friend Julie (Beannie Feldstein), she dates two guys, good-mannered Catholic boy Danny (Lucas Hedges) and rebellious musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and loses her virginity, and she conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to Columbia behind her mother’s back. She also learns a few things along the way, like how much her family is struggling financially ever since her father was laid off, forcing her mother to work double shifts at the hospital to make ends meet, and how much she still has to learn about life, love, and herself. This is not a plot driven story; it works more like a chain of short episodes in the life of 17-year-old Lady Bird, née Christine McPherson, on her passage into adulthood, detailing the lessons, troubles, and pleasures she experiences along the way.

Written and directed by Greta Gerwig and based largely on her own experiences as a Catholic teenager in California, there is a definite sense of time and place to this film as well as a strong authentic voice. The film is set in 2002, where people are still reeling in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (it’s just one of many reasons why Marion is so apprehensive about her daughter moving to New York City) and where the modern digital age hasn’t quite fully arrived yet. By setting the film in her hometown of Sacramento, Gerwig is able to create a backdrop that feels both lived-in and intimate, partly through her use of impeccably-cast character actors such as Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who leave sound, memorable impressions in their few minutes of screen time, and also through the investment in detail that could only have been provided by one who has lived this life. From the subsiding middle-class lifestyle that the family lives to the Catholic rituals practiced at the school to the specific atmosphere of the city of Sacramento in 2002, the film is filled with features from Gerwig’s life that she is able to depict in a personal and familiar way with a few little touches.

The key relationship at the heart of this film is that between Lady Bird and her mother. Far from the docile Irish girl she played in Brooklyn, Ronan is utterly boisterous as the restless, defiant Lady Bird. As a character who is impatient for her life to begin but still doesn’t quite understand that she doesn’t yet know what she doesn’t know, Ronan hit that perfect balance between acuity and naiveté and is able to be sensitive and vulnerable while still being impulsive and imprudent. Metcalf meanwhile plays her exasperated passive-aggressive mother with a truly profound sense of world-weariness and maternal affection in equal measure. That she loves her daughter is never in doubt, but she doesn’t always know how best to express it and oftentimes doesn’t have the patience for her teenage angst on top of everything else she has to deal with. There is a scene near the end that focuses squarely on Metcalf’s face for a prolonged, unspoken take in which her performance reaches a moving, heartbreaking peak. In their scenes together the mother and daughter are constantly playing jump-rope with the line between familial harmony and antagonistic quarrelling, as in one moment where they go shopping together and switch from having a heated argument to cooing over a pretty dress in one second flat.

Lady Bird is a thoroughly enjoyable film full of humour, insight and heart. It can occasionally be a little too repetitive and is sometimes a little evasive when faced with a moment that threatens to be too hard-hitting or upsetting. But then that evasiveness is pretty characteristic for a film where the main character throws herself out of a moving car in order to escape an argument with her mother. While I cannot fault a film for being true to its own character, there were still one or two moments where I would’ve liked to see Gerwig follow a moment through and see where it led. Anyway, none of that is a slight against the many things that the film does well. Lady Bird treats its story with much honesty and authenticity, Ronan continues to shine as one of the best young actors working today and brings much humanity and warmth to what is often an unlikeable character (and ditto to Metcalf), and the film at its best is irresistibly funny and affective. I hope this will be the first of many films in Gerwig’s career as a director.

★★★★

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Manchester by the Sea

Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges

Director: Kenneth Lonergan

Writer: Kenneth Lonergan


One thing that tends to get on my nerves is when someone says that they don’t like a certain film because they find it depressing. Even if the film ends on a positive, hopeful note (Schindler’s List for instance) they find that it isn’t worth enduring the grim, sad parts of the story. I find this to be an, at best, narrow and, at worst, delusional attitude towards cinema (and art for that matter). The reason we get depressing movies is because life itself can often be depressing. My view is that the purpose of film is not to escape reality but to understand it, whether the film in question is a thoughtful, profound drama or dumb, mindless entertainment. To avoid depressing films because they make you feel sad seems to me like denying that misfortune, sorrow, and tragedy are a part of life. Manchester by the Sea is, to be sure, depressing; it is a story about guilt, grief, and penance. This film made me feel very sad indeed, and I would have it no other way.

Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) is a loner living a miserable, solitary existence as a handyman in Massachusetts. He shows an absolute persistence towards living an antisocial life, refusing to be pleasant to an irritating customer, apathetically shrugging off the reprimand this brings him, and showing utter indifference to the advances of a woman at a bar (opting instead to pick a fight with a couple of strangers). He then receives word that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital and rushes back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-Sea to learn he has died. While arranging his brother’s funeral, Lee learns that Joe has made him guardian to his teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges), a choice that neither party is on board with. Not wanting to let his brother down, and adamant that Patrick’s estranged mother Elise (Gretchen Mol) should have no part in his upbringing, Lee resolves that the only option is for both of them to move to Boston, an idea that Patrick firmly resists. Through flashbacks of his life in Manchester-by-the-Sea with his brother and his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), we learn more about Lee and of the tragedy that destroyed him, rendering him unable to return to his hometown.

In what is already a good, well-acted film with a marvellous script, the strongest part by far is Affleck’s performance. Through him we see two sides of a wretched individual. In the present he is a broken man, dejected and alone, rejecting each and every opportunity for happiness that comes his way. In the flashbacks we see a cheerful, outgoing man with great affection for his family, perfectly content with his life. The million-dollar question of course is what terrible thing could possibly have happened that led him to this state of being. The remarkable thing about Affleck’s performance is that even though most of his scenes require him to be withdrawn in his emotions, there is always a sense of bottled up rage within that could, and does, come out at a moment’s notice. Lee’s ceaseless commitment towards being unhappy and alone might have proven exasperating if not for the humanity Affleck brings to the role.

For the sake of his brother Lee tries to reach out to Patrick but finds it difficult to connect with him, even in their moments of mourning for the same man. Lee has no patience for his nephew’s teenage problems (most notably his duplicitous love life) and Patrick has no time for his uncle’s antisocial behaviour and depression. Once the source of Lee’s grief is revealed, his masochistic tendencies and ambivalence regarding the care of his only living relative are all the more understandable. The desolate life he lives is one built on the foundations of unimaginable pain and woe, but it is one that he has imposed on himself. Guilt is what has shaped Lee into the man he has become and it is why he must reject every opportunity for happiness that comes his way and why he is grossly unable to care for another person. The most poignant of all the film’s themes is that of forgiveness – forgiveness of others and forgiveness of self. In the film’s most heartbreaking scene, Lee finds that he cannot accept the forgiveness of that whom he has hurt the most nor can he forgive himself. In his own words, he “can’t beat it”.

Although Manchester by the Sea is a deeply sad film about a man and a young boy in a tragic stage of their lives, Lonergan manages to provide balance with some surprising moments of comedy. At times the humour can be absurdist, as in one scene when Patrick asks Lee to distract the mother of his (second) girlfriend so that they can have sex upstairs, only for Lee to prove himself profoundly incapable of making small talk. Other times it can be deadpan, as when Lee nonchalantly explains to Patrick how he cut his hand. There is a certain authenticity and humanity to be found in these humourous moments that arise in the face of tragedy which is why they don’t feel at all out of place. That is what makes Manchester by the Sea a great film. Its portrait of tragedy is utterly raw and unpretentious and is every bit as powerful and depressing as it ought to be.

★★★★★