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Catholic school girls in trouble

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Lady Bird

By Noel Vera

Movie Review
Lady Bird
Directed by Greta Gerwin

HAVE TO admit that taking on actress-turned-filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s second feature gave me pause. Not my favorite genre (the bildungsroman) nor was it a milieu I’m familiar with (Sacramento, California) — I was tempted to throw up my hands and say “not my cup of tea!” and leave it at that.

Doesn’t help that the movie starts with a jawdropper: Christine (Saoirse Ronan) — who calls herself “Lady Bird” because that’s what teens apparently do — in a car with her mother Marion (the wonderfully wry Laurie Metcalf) listening to an audiocassette of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Almost immediately after wiping away their tears they have a violent quarrel on the subject of college (“You can’t get into those schools anyway.” “Mom!” “You can’t even pass your driver’s test.”) — so violent Christine flings herself out of the still-moving vehicle, just to get away from her relentlessly monotone mother.

Some good things here: as Gerwig herself points out in an informal interview in the NPR quiz show Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, mothers and daughters are capable of turning on an emotional dime — sniff mournfully over a passage of Steinbeck one minute, go at each other’s throat like a pair of wolverines the next, end the scene perfectly fine, as if nothing had happened.

Jumping out of a moving car does ratchet up the tension in an audience. One thinks of Christine as not just emotionally volatile but physically fearless, not just able to act spontaneously but stupidly, self-destructively, in total mercy to one’s impulses.

Did Christine learn from the incident? She sports a wrist cast for most of the picture and you wait for her to swing it down hard on someone’s cranium, possibly — especially — her mother’s, to at least do something as unpredictable as in that opening scene. Expectation established, expectation dashed.

And… that’s it really. Gerwig’s debut solo feature (she had co-directed Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg) is a modest picture full of modest pleasures — precisely observed if not particularly probing, some poignant passages, some lovely supporting performances (arguably the entire cast is supporting, the characters they play almost exclusively seen — especially Metcalf’s memorably unyielding mother — through Christine’s eyes).

Gerwig constructs a series of vignettes — of Christine seeking social status, seeking a relationship with a boy, seeking to lose her virginity (basically most of the standard tropes found in a teenage girl comedy) — and caps the movie with a revisit to the opening conflict (the question of college) and Marion’s non-confrontation with Christine on the issue. Having written the script herself, Gerwig seems to know how to write sharp cutting dialogue, deliver a nice little punchline, sustain pace transition to the next vignette.

Maybe what’s missing is the sense of something urgent at stake — a crisis or realization or person that profoundly changes Christine’s life. We see changes — Christine does eventually rise in status, does form relationships, does (I suppose I ought to add a warning about plot twists but is there really a point?) lose her virginity — but there’s a sense of benign forces at work smoothing things over, making everything turn out pretty much all right. Even the crisis involving Marion — arguably the picture’s dramatic high — ends with a last-minute turnaround and some studious anticlimactic bridge-building between family members (the image late in the picture of Christine placing a long-distance call has the feel of an AT&T commercial).

Catholic girls gone wild; has this been attempted before on the big screen? Ida Lupino’s The Trouble with Angels — about Catholic students (led by Hayley Mills) under the watchful eye of Rosalind Russell as Mother Superior — is on the surface even more irritatingly wholesome and sitcom-ish than Gerwig’s indie production; cigarettes may be lit (and at one point cigars) but virginity is never at any moment in danger of being lost. The film (based on the novel Life with Mother Superior by June Trahey, about her experiences in a Catholic school) features the kind of narrative density and character detail that fleshes out a story far more convincingly than a series of clever vignettes. Helps that Lupino is a veteran filmmaker able to work within different genres (noir thriller, feminist drama, bildungsroman comedy) to create responses to her characters that change over the course of the narrative.

I don’t consider it mere coincidence that Lupino directed this film towards the end of her career (she’d continue directing but in television), Gerwig nearer the beginning of hers. Gerwig seems to operate under the imperative to “write (and direct) what you know,” choosing semi-autobiographical material (she’s not Catholic, but did go to a Catholic high school). Lupino took someone’s real-life experiences and (with a filmmaker’s eye developed over long experience) shaped it to deliver genuine dramatic force: in this film a life-changing decision is made, involving actual sacrifice, and you can’t help but know it.

MTRCB Rating: R-13