Friday, January 19, 2018

Fakery: Lady Bird

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf in Lady Bird.

Written and directed by the actress Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is the coming-of-age story of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a Sacramento teenager whose quirks include her insistence on renaming herself Lady Bird. At the Catholic school she attends, she’s an underachiever, though she’s smart and creative; her social circle is pretty much restricted to her best pal Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who’s overweight and as much an outsider as she is. At home she’s constantly at odds with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whose anxiety over money since Lady Bird’s dad, Larry (Tracy Letts), lost his job has turned her into a sour, one-note nag. The movie covers Lady Bird’s senior year, when she falls for two boys (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet), one after another, both of whom disappoint her in different ways, flirts with social acceptance by fibbing her way into a friendship with a cool kid (Odeya Rush), and, behind her mother’s back (but with the collusion of her sympathetic father), applies to NYU, a college beyond the family’s financial means. It is, like most coming-of-age narratives that focus on the high school experience, about the protagonist’s figuring out who she is (and who she isn’t).

The picture has won the praise of most critics and the hearts of many moviegoers. But I found it relentlessly phony and I had to fight to watch it through to the end. Like several other end-of-year releases that have been showered with nominations and awards – I, Tonya, The Florida Project and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Lady Bird is a hopeless mess in terms of tone, and I’d say in terms of style too. (It’s actually the best of the four, but that’s hardly a recommendation.) The comedy is broadly ironic, with quotation marks around much of the dialogue. Entire scenes are played like Saturday Night Live routines, like one where, after the drama coach (Stephen Henderson), depressed by the unenthusiastic reception to his ill-chosen production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, takes retirement, the football coach (Bob Stephenson) replaces him for the next show, The Tempest, using a chalkboard to indicate the staging as if he were prepping his team. Feldstein’s whole character, in fact, is an SNL caricature. (It’s also virtually indistinguishable from the one she’s giving on Broadway in the revival of Hello, Dolly!, where she plays Minnie Fay, the shop assistant.) Yet the movie keeps turning around after these crowd-pleasing guffaw fests and expecting us to take the characters’ predicaments seriously. Last summer’s The Big Sick, which I also disliked, plays the same game, and audiences seem content to respond to whatever these comedies throw their way, however bewildering the shifts might be. A friend told me that when she saw Lady Bird she laughed at a scene where the title character comes across her current boyfriend (Hedges) kissing another boy and the people sitting around her glared. My friend couldn’t tell that it was supposed to be touching, and I confess that I couldn’t either.

There’s a much bigger tonal problem in the way Gerwig dramatizes Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother. Marion can barely talk to her daughter without indicating in half a dozen ways that she’s at the end of her rope. She’s dead set on Lady Bird’s attending a big state school like UC Davis, which she has no interest in but which is within their budget. Lady Bird is unrealistic about a lot of things (like wanting to make the math team, though she has no affinity for the subject), but she thinks that her talents might just be appreciated by a place like NYU, which is less likely to shy away from her eccentricities – and she’s in love with the idea of going to school in Manhattan. And this time her instincts turn out to be right: NYU wait-lists her. But Marion is so upset that she went ahead and applied there that, rather than being proud of her daughter’s achievement, she stops talking to her. When Lady Bird gets in off the wait list – even when her parents drive her to the airport – Marion’s still not speaking to her daughter. By this point in the movie all I could think was that the more miles that kid put between herself and her foul-tempered, unsupportive mother the better. Larry – whom Marion never censures for his role in this evidently unforgivable deception – tries to broker a peace between them by showing Lady Bird the letters Marion has written to her, which he rescued from the waste-paper basket to which she’d consigned them, and clearly Gerwig believes that the fact that she has unexpressed feelings for her daughter should compensate for her unkind treatment of her. Metcalf is a fine actor, but there’s nothing she can do to pull off this role, no matter how many awards she keeps winning for the neurotic unpleasantness of her performance. At this juncture I’d say the Oscar race for Best Supporting Actress is between her and Allison Janney’s even less appealing depiction of Margot Robbie’s mother in I, Tonya.

The cast is awkwardly balanced between actors who are infuriating or utterly implausible (Metcalf, Feldstein, Chalamet) and those who manage to break through with a little humanity (Letts, Hedges, Lois Smith as the school principal, a nun with a sense of humor and a great deal of common sense). The phenomenally gifted Saiorse Ronan is perfectly OK, and she certainly deserves credit for not being dragged down by the hopelessly synthetic material. But I don’t think it does much for her, especially after the showing she made in Brooklyn. The movie’s way of getting its effects is to swing a hammer at them until the bell rings as loudly as possible. But how can you believe in a movie that works like a game at an arcade?

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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