Monday, February 26, 2018

Best of 2017, #1: Lady Bird

What a wonderful film.  Our top two movies are so similar: Both were created by performers who weren’t known as writers or directors but both turned out to be geniuses in disguise.  It makes you wonder who else is sitting on hidden talents.  Some old rules this reminded me of:

Begin When the Problem Becomes Undeniable, End When It’s Resolved: What is the story of this movie? If I was describing it to someone, I would probably say “It’s the story of a girl’s senior year of high school,” so the most obvious structure would be to begin with an aerial shot of the kids entering school on the first day and end on another aerial shot of her flying off for college, but the movie is smarter than that.

This is a movie with several plotlines, but Gerwig knows she has to choose one storyline to predominate, begin the movie when that problem becomes undeniable, and end when it resolves. Gerwig probably could have structured the movie around Lady Bird’s relationship with her best friend, or her attempts to lose her virginity, but she ultimately decided that the conflict with the mom was the emotional heart of the movie, so she begins a little bit before the school year (iirc) with the moment that relationship becomes open warfare, and then she actually keeps the story going a little bit into college to find the moment when that storyline resolves itself, because Lady Bird has to go away to get some perspective on their relationship.

The Trailer Scene: So let’s talk about the opening scene, because it’s a great example of a “Holy Crap” moment that’s necessary to make a trailer work. The movie is a low-key coming of age story, and those are notoriously hard to sell. The trailer does include the best moment in the movie, when Lady Bird asks her mom, “What if this is the best version [of myself]?” and her mom gives her that wonderful look, but that’s not really a great trailer moment. Even if your movie is very realistic, it’s good to have one moment that strains that realism to the breaking point to put a moment of outrageousness in the trailer, and jumping out of the car while her mom is driving is a perfect example. It’s not so extreme that it would make the news, but it’s definitely nothing the characters will ever forget.

I know that for me, jumping out got a big laugh when I saw the trailer and made me want to see the movie. It assured me that this wouldn’t be that kind of movie (which is to say, the kind of movie Gerwig usually stars in), too low key to care about, or too cool for school. It assured me: This is going to be a comedy, and you’ll be allowed to laugh.

Reversible reversible behavior. But this is a realistic movie, and it’s going to also score points by undermining our traditional narrative expectations in favor of greater realism. One great little moment: Whenever a character, especially a teen character, insists on an alias, we also await the moment when they drop the façade and admit their real name, because that’s classic reversible behavior, and sure enough this movie delivers that moment when Lady Bird is at her first college party, but then it wonderfully undercuts that breakthrough. She admits her name, but then the boy asks her where she’s from and she panics and lies. One step forward, one step back. This is what we want out of realistic movies: clever subversion of tropes in a way that makes us think, “Finally a movie that’s willing to show how it really is!”


Harvey Jerkwater said...

The "jump out of the car" moment not only let us know that this was a comedy in which it was okay to laugh and gave a trailer moment, not only did it establish the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother and show us who they were as people, but it also pulled off an important bit for realistic movies: front-load the crazy. If the loopiest part of the story happens right at the start and afterwards it's never that nuts again, we have no problem with it; if that scene happened in the middle of the movie, it would have felt jarring. Unless you had built it up to that point, which would make the first half a drag and the second half too hurried.

And yeah, if you're going to tell a story about a relationship growing and maturing, it's best to start with flashy and ridiculous then gradually descend into the heartfelt and forgiving.

Another part I appreciated is how Gerwig had the characters of Lady Bird and Marion demonstrated many of the same qualities but the parallels were never explicit or even all that obvious. They feel related but not clones, which is exactly right. They rhyme but they don't repeat.

A surprise for me was the cutting short of scenes. The movie kept walking towards Big Meaty Actorly Scenes and then skipping past them to the outcomes. When Lady Bird goes to see Julie rather than go to the prom, Gerwig skips a lot of the heartfelt conversations you'd expect them to have and goes to them eating cheese. The priest who goes in for counseling was set up to be a major player but wasn't. You have a piece on here somewhere about the difference between important and newsworthy, and Gerwig followed that. We knew that Lady Bird and Julie would make up once LB showed up at the door. We don't need to see the actual reconciliation. Showing it would be an indulgence, a chance for actors to brew up Oscar clips of Big Acting. However, that would also have thrown off the feel of Lady Bird, making it feel Hollywood rather than, well, Sacramento.

It's funny, though -- both Lady Bird and The Big Sick left me a little underwhelmed. Both are very good low-key movies that do what they set out to do, like "taut, efficient" thrillers, but they don't go beyond their subgenres. Both unspool exactly as you think they will. Their pleasures come from watching how they go through the expected steps. This isn't a dig. Still, the degree of critical praise feels a little overblown. I suspect it's partially relief at seeing very good low-key movies in the era of Superhero Mega-Splosion Fisticuffery.

Matt Bird said...

Some very good points. Getting out of scenes early is so important.