Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Lady Bird (2017) ✭✭✭✭½

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird accomplishes something I previously thought impossible; it almost made me nostalgic for the darkly anxious days of 2003. This coming of age - or in this case meandering of age - film is polished to a humorous gleam that never hides its underlying harsh, truthful glare. With the drumbeat to the Iraq war pounding from their TV screens, along with early glimmers of the decade’s crisis economics, a group of high school seniors obsess about hormones, prom dates and college admissions. For one student who has nicknamed herself Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), anxiety for the future pulses through her naive spirit like the magenta streaks in her fashionably stringy hair. Lady Bird is desperate to escape the clodhopper confines of Sacramento, and its bumpkin co-conspirator UC-Davis, and attend college in the enlightened northeast, where surely her enthralling artistic aura will finally be recognized and celebrated.

While this may sound like standard post-pubescent fare, Lady Bird achieves an emotional loft miles beyond the typical teen film. Ronan’s erratic romance with an anguished young man (brilliant Lucas Hedges, who seems to be everywhere this award season) resolves into a scene of abject weeping that not only turns the gender tables, it will leave all but the most hardened souls wrecked and quivering. Laurie Metcalf, who plays Ronan’s mom, delivers a gem of a performance that launches passive-aggressiveness to the stratosphere. Something magical has happened to Metcalf in recent years. She has figured out how to play comedic abstractions so thoroughly grounded in truth that they cease to be abstractions, and instead become the astonishingly real people we deal with every day. Check out her extraordinary work in the HBO series Getting On (2015) for further confirmation.

It’s important to watch this film not just as the simple story of a geeky teenager, but within the context of time, and the grim ramifications the film leaves unsaid. Young Ronan may achieve her Ivy League dreams, but a few years later the costs will be devastating to her and her deeply leveraged family. The financial crisis will be be unforgiving to the heavily mortgaged, and during the film you just want to yell “Noooooooooooo” to her well-meaning but already struggling parents. Still, the film reminds us of a time when higher education and personal betterment seemed an unalienable right; an entitlement part and parcel of the American Dream. And perhaps that is Lady Bird’s real genius. In its mellow, microscopic way, it subtly, splendidly captures the death rattles of a once great nation. Before America fully descended to lies, greed and chaos. When anything was still possible.

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