Thursday, September 05, 2019

Rulebook Casefile: The Crucial Use of a “Holy Crap” Moment in “Lady Bird”

Wow, so right away, this movie “fails” the first three questions on our checklist:
Is the one sentence description uniquely appealing?
No, there’s no hook.  It had to depend entirely on reviews and a funny trailer. 
Does the concept contain an intriguing ironic contradiction?
Not really.  The cover image is very slightly incongruous: a girl with colored hair at a catholic school, but that doesn’t really rise to the level of irony.
Is this a story anyone can identify with, projected onto a bigger canvas, with higher stakes?
No, this is just the writer/director’s life story, faithfully recreated with its original place and time, with the same stakes as the true story. 
This is the quintessential “small movie,” and it’s a perfect example of how to do it right.  Writer / director Greta Gerwig knows exactly what she’s doing, and she knows the risk of not meeting those expectations.

She could have generated some sort of hook, but chose not to. She could have amplified the irony of her real life memories. She could have transposed her own coming of age story into some bigger setting with bigger stakes (Post-apocalyptic! Learning how to overcome dragon overloads!), but she very faithfully stuck to the true story, right down to the year and city: Sacramento in 2002.

So how do you sell such a movie? Obviously, a big part of it is waiting to see if you get good reviews and them quoting them in the press materials. But Gerwig didn’t wait for that: She knew she had to add one moment that almost certainly didn’t happen in real life.* An outrageous moment. A moment that maybe no one would actually do, but we all remember feeling like doing it, and so it’ll delight audiences to see someone actually do it. A moment that would get a big laugh in the movie, and more importantly, in the trailer. A “Holy Crap” moment, in which Lady Bird jumps out of a moving car to get away from her mom’s criticism.

(In the script, she waits until her mom is slowing down at a light, but in the film they decided to push it farther and put them going full speed on a rural highway.)

Somewhat unusually, the “Holy Crap” scene here is the first one. This works well, as it also serves at the “problem becomes untenable” moment, which is always a good place to start this kind of movie. Obviously, her problems with her mother have been building for years, but this is the moment the movie begins because those problems have now entered the “life threatening” zone. It’s now an untenable situation. Something must be done.

* I wanted to confirm this, so I looked up and found this article, which confirms my assumption and backs up what I’m saying here:

  • Greta Gerwig wants it to be known that she’s never leapt out of a speeding car, even if the protagonist does so in Lady Bird, her acclaimed new film.
  • Why would anybody think she’d do such a thing? Well, maybe it’s because Saoirse Ronan, the Irish actor who plays the rebellious teen title star, does such a grand job of making us think of Gerwig, the popular comic actor (Frances Ha, Mistress America) who remained behind the camera this time as writer/director of her debut feature.
  • Lady Bird lives in Sacramento, Gerwig’s hometown. Her mom’s a nurse, she goes to an all-girls Catholic school and she embraces life with a unique sense of cockeyed optimism. Ditto, likewise, for Gerwig’s past and current life.
  • So the Oscar-buzzed film, which opened Friday in Toronto, is at least semi-autobiographical. But let’s clarify the car incident, which happens when Lady Bird is having one of her many “discussions” with her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf.
  • “I never jumped out of a moving car,” says Gerwig, 34, during a recent Toronto promotional visit.
  • “I did get out of a vehicle once (during a dispute), but it was a stopped car. The car scene in the movie felt like, emotionally, completely realistic. Everybody knows the feeling of when you’re in a car and you’re fighting, and you want to push them out or you want to jump out, or some combination of the two. You’re literally trapped with the person in the space . . . I just always knew that’s how I wanted to start the movie.”

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