When Harvey Weinstein was a force in Hollywood to be reckoned with, many of his films were, quite frankly, over-rated. Most recent examples, including LION, CAROL and LEE DANIELS’ THE BUTLER, all garnered multiple, undeserved award nominations and trophies because Weinstein was a master of promotion. (Surprisingly, LA LA LAND wasn’t one of Weinstein’s productions but it, too, was highly overrated. I was very happy that MOONLIGHT won the Best Picture Oscar.) Now, in 2018, Weinstein is out but the Hollywood publicity machine is still working overtime. This year’s overrated film is LADY BIRD which, for a brief time, was Rotten Tomatoes’ highest-rated film of all time. Really? Of all time? Directed by reigning indie queen Greta Gerwig (JACKIE; WIENER-DOG; MAGGIE’S PLAN; MISTRESS AMERICA; FRANCES HA), LADY BIRD marks the actress’ first solo effort behind the camera. (She co-directed NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS along with co-star Joe Swanberg back in 2008.) I’ll be the first to admit that I’m a huge Greta Gerwig fan but I’m far from being as enamoured with LADY BIRD as the vast majority of my fellow film critics are.
LADY BIRD is a coming-of-age film set in Sacramento, California in 2002. (It’s no coincidence that Gerwig hails from there although she is quick to say that the film is not autobiographical.) Our protagonist is Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, BROOKLYN), a high school senior at a Catholic school in the rather sleepy city. While many of her classmates live in the “Fabulous Forties”, a neighbourhood known for its large and expensive homes, Lady Bird and her family literally live on the wrong side of the tracks in the same modest bungalow they’ve called home since her parents got married. For whatever reason, the American Dream seems to have passed the McPhersons by. Her father, Larry (Tracy Letts, ELVIS & NIXON; WIENER-DOG; THE BIG SHORT) is an unemployed engineer. Her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf, TV’s ROSEANNE) is a hospital psychologist, and her brother, Miguel, is a Harvard graduate but he prefers to live at home with his girlfriend, Shelly, and work as a cashier at the local supermarket. Lady Bird, however, wants more than that for herself. She wants to go to college on the east coast where, she believes, she’ll be able to rub shoulders with the literati who live, work and study there. Now she only has to convince Marion to let her fly from the nest. Over the course of the school year, we watch as Lady Bird begins to stretch her wings, challenging parental authority, making new friends, ending lifelong friendships, trying out boyfriends and changing from being a pain-in-the-ass, smart-mouthed teenager to becoming a mature, young woman.
This is a very well-made film, especially coming from someone who has had so little experience directing. Gerwig has assembled a wonderful cast of character actors and she brought out great performances from every one of them. Ronan and Metcalf have both been nominated for Oscars, and rightly so, though it’s doubtful that either will win. Their scenes together, though, are fabulous and, most of all, real. There is a great scene of the two of them looking for a prom dress in a discount clothing store. One second they’re harping at each other and the next they’re gushing over the perfect dress. Two minutes later, they’re harping at each other again. So many people will be able to see themselves and their mothers in these two characters. The film’s secondary actors, including Lucas Hedges (THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI; MANCHESTER BY THE SEA), Timothée Chalamet (soon to be seen here in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME) and Beanie Feldstein (Jonah Hill’s little sister) also put in excellent performances. Where the film falls short, though, is in the writing (also by Gerwig), which includes the typical teen tropes that we’ve seen in so many films of this genre before. If there is a difference, it’s that with LADY BIRD it isn’t one pivotal event that causes the character to mature. Here it’s a series of small events, with each one influencing her behaviour in a tiny but perceptible (to us) way. This reminds me of the TV show, THE WONDER YEARS. We watched over six seasons as Kevin, Winnie and Paul grew up.
All in all, LADY BIRD is a very good film but it’s not a great film. Its Best Picture Oscar nomination may be more as a reaction to the nominating body’s history of putting forth films by and starring white males than for its merits. Definitely check it out though. You may think it is worthy of all the hype and, if so, let me know in the Comments section.
Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live in RTHK Radio 4’s studio on Thursday, February 22nd at 8:30 am HK time!
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