Podcast

Wednesday, September 04, 2019

The Ultimate Story Checklist: Lady Bird

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson tries to make it through her senior year (and a bit beyond) at a Catholic school in Sacramento in 2002, fighting with her mom but not her dad. She acts in the school play and starts going out with Danny, but finds him making out with a guy. She ditches her friend Julie for cool girl Jenna and loses her virginity to cool jerk Kyle. Finally, she ditches Kyle just in time to go to prom with Julie as friends. Against her mom’s wishes, she goes to college in New York City, but calls her mom to make peace at the end.
PART #1: CONCEPT 14/19
The Pitch: Does this concept excite everyone who hears about it?
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. 
Story Fundamentals: Will this concept generate a strong story?
Is the concept simple enough to spend more time on character than plot?
Very much so. 
Is there one character that the audience will choose to be their “hero”?
Lady Bird
Does the story follow the progress of the hero’s problem, not the hero’s daily life? 
Basically.  It begins at the moment her relationship with her mom becomes untenable, and ends with the relationship’s peacable resolution.
Does the story present a unique relationship?
None of the relationships are tremendously unique, but they’re all original enough not to be cliché. We’ve seen relationships of the sort we see here with the mom, the dad, Julie, Jenna, Danny, and Kyle, but not with these well-observed unique details.
Is at least one actual human being opposed to what the hero is doing?
Her mom is opposed to a lot of what she’s doing.
Does this challenge represent the hero’s greatest hope and/or greatest fear and/or an ironic answer to the hero’s question?
Her greatest hope is to leave Sacramento and be cool.
Does something inside the hero have a particularly volatile reaction to the challenge?
From the first scene, we see how volatile she’s become as a result of the stresses in her life.
Does this challenge become something that is the not just hard for the hero to do (an obstacle) but hard for the hero to want to do (a conflict)?
She knows she will lose her mom if she becomes her own person, and she loves her mom. 
In the end, is the hero the only one who can solve the problem?
Yes, only she can be in charge of her own life in the end.
Does the hero permanently transform the situation and vice versa?
Very much so.
The Hook: Will this be marketable and generate word of mouth?
Does the story satisfy the basic human urges that get people to buy and recommend this genre?
Very much so: It’s funny, romantic, moving, etc.  We laugh and cry. 
Does this story show us at least one image we haven’t seen before (that can be used to promote the final product)?
Again, just slightly with the colored hair in catholic school.  So not really.
Is there at least one “Holy Crap!” scene (to create word of mouth)?
Very much so.  The way they sold this movie was by showing her jump out of the car in the middle of the argument with her mom in the opening scene.  It adds a “Holy Crap” moment to a subdued movie and makes you want to see it. 
Does the story contain a surprise that is not obvious from the beginning?
Not really.  A bit with Danny turning out to be gay.
Is the story marketable without revealing the surprise?
N/A
Is the conflict compelling and ironic both before and after the surprise?
N/A
PART #2: CHARACTER 21/22
Believe: Do we recognize the hero as a human being?
Does the hero have a moment of humanity early on? (A funny, or kind, or oddball, or out-of-character, or comically vain, or unique-but-universal “I thought I was the only one who did that!” moment?)
She’s mildly funny (saying her brother barely saw the knifing that caused her to be taken out of public school) and vain in a mildly comic way (insisting on her made-up name and saying “I want to go where culture is, like New York.  Or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire.  Where writers live in the woods.”)
Is the hero defined by ongoing actions and attitudes, not by backstory?
Jumping out of the car defines her
Does the hero have a well-defined public identity?
Jumping out of the car results in a bright pink cast with “Fuck You Mom” written on it, and she has pinkish hair, so that defines her strongly.  And she tells everybody her chosen name, showing she wants to fly away. 
Does the surface characterization ironically contrast with a hidden interior self?
She secretly loves Sacramento and her mom.
Does the hero have a consistent metaphor family (drawn from his or her job, background, or developmental state)?
Developmental: We first see her listening to Steinbeck on audiobook and her voice is sort of Lost Generation-y (“I wish I could live through something.”)
Does the hero have a default personality trait?
 Her teacher then tells her “You have a performative streak”.  She’s overly dramatic, likeably shallow and vain.
Does the hero have a default argument tactic?
Mischaracterizes her scene partner: (“I’m sorry I’m not perfect.”) Insists on her own reality if spite of evidence: “What I’d really like is to be on Math Olympiad.” “But math isn’t something that you are terribly strong in.” “That we know of YET.”
Is the hero’s primary motivation for tackling this challenge strong, simple, and revealed early on?
Her motivation isn’t strong: She strongly wants out of town, but nobody is sure why, including herself.  She waffles about whether she even wants it.
Care: Do we feel for the hero?
Does the hero start out with a shortsighted or wrongheaded philosophy (or accept a false piece of advice early on)?
“I wish I could live through something.”  Be careful what you wish for.
Does the hero have a false or shortsighted goal in the first half?
Win Danny.
Does the hero have an open fear or anxiety about his or her future, as well as a hidden, private fear?
Open fear: She won’t get into an east coast school, that she’ll always look like she’s from Sacramento.  Hidden, private fear: That she’ll lose her mom.
Is the hero physically and emotionally vulnerable?
Very much so: She has a cast, and she’s emotionally open to scenes that hurt her.
Does the hero have at least one untenable great flaw we empathize with? (but…)
She’s vain, she betrays her friend in a quest to be cool.
Invest: Can we trust the hero to tackle this challenge?
…Is that great flaw (ironically) the natural flip-side of a great strength we admire?
She’s self-confident and goes for what she wants.
Is the hero curious?
Yes, she tries out theater, looks up whatever she can learn about things mentioned by the guys she has crushes on.
Is the hero generally resourceful?
Yes, she rehearses for the audition, schemes her way into the world of the cool kids.
Does the hero have rules he or she lives by (either stated or implied)?
I don’t even want to go to school in this state anyway, I hate California. I want to go to the East Coast.”
Is the hero surrounded by people who sorely lack his or her most valuable quality?
Her best friend lacks her confidence.  Her family lacks her ambition.
…And is the hero willing to let them know that, subtly or directly?
Not so much with her friend (which is good), but certainly with her family.
Is the hero already doing something active when we first meet him or her?
She jumps out of a car.
Does the hero have (or claim) decision-making authority?
Well, she’s trying to get more of it the whole time but yes, she pretty much in charge of her life.
Does the hero use pre-established special skills from his or her past to solve problems (rather than doing what anybody would do)?
To a certain extent.  Her lack of skills is part of her problem.  But she shows uncommon social ability to navigate different worlds.
PART #3: STRUCTURE (If the story is about the solving of a large problem) 17/21
1st Quarter: Is the challenge laid out in the first quarter?
When the story begins, is the hero becoming increasingly irritated about his or her longstanding social problem (while still in denial about an internal flaw)?
Her first line: “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?”
Does this problem become undeniable due to a social humiliation at the beginning of the story?
Her mother tells her she lacks the ability to make it out of Sacramento.  “You should just go to City College, with your work ethic. City College and then to jail then back to City College. Maybe you’d learn how to pull yourself up and not expect everyone to do everything for you...”
Does the hero discover an intimidating opportunity to fix the problem?
Sort of.  She pusues the real solution (applying for an east coast school) slowly in the background for most of the movie, but in the foreground she pursues other ways to be sophisticated and happy: Theater and boys she perceives as smarter than her. 
Does the hero hesitate until the stakes are raised?
No, she’s not a hestiater.
Does the hero commit to pursuing the opportunity by the end of the first quarter?
She’s applying to schools, doing theater, and pursuing Danny.
2nd Quarter: Does the hero try the easy way in the second quarter?
Does the hero’s pursuit of the opportunity quickly lead to an unforeseen conflict with another person?
Her mom fights her at every turn, and she get pushback from her brother too.
Does the hero try the easy way throughout the second quarter?
Sort of: She applies to college amibitiously despite not attempting to better her grades.  She accepts Danny without suspicion.
Does the hero have a little fun and get excited about the possibility of success?
She’s in love, loving theater.
Does the easy way lead to a big crash around the midpoint, resulting in the loss of a safe space and/or sheltering relationship?
Danny turns out to be gay, she can’t enjoy the play anymore.
3rd Quarter: Does the hero try the hard way in the third quarter?
Does the hero try the hard way from this point on?
Yes, but this is the sort of movie where “the hard way” is also “the bad way” She drops theater and her best friend Julie, pursues a bad friend and bad boy, through subterfuge.  
Does the hero find out who his or her real friends and real enemies are?
Both of those relationships are unsatisfactory and she goes back to Julie.
Do the stakes, pace, and motivation all escalate at this point?
She has to race to Julie before prom ends, sort of.
Does the hero learn from mistakes in a painful way?
Very much so.
Does a further setback lead to a spiritual crisis?
When she ditches Kyle.
4th Quarter: Does the challenge climax in the fourth quarter?
Does the hero adopt a corrected philosophy after the spiritual crisis?
 “She’s my best friend” “I’m sorry, I know I can lie and not be a good person but... Please, Mom, please I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you - I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, I’m ungrateful and I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry I wanted more...”
After that crisis, does the hero finally commit to pursuing a corrected goal, which still seems far away?
Well, she pretty much just has to wait and see if she gets off the wait list.
Before the final quarter of the story begins, (if not long before) has your hero switched to being proactive, instead of reactive?
She goes off to school, despite her mom not talking to her. 
Despite these proactive steps, is the timeline unexpectedly moved up, forcing the hero to improvise for the finale?
No.
Do all strands of the story and most of the characters come together for the climactic confrontation?
No, she’s off at school in the final scenes without all the other characters. 
Does the hero’s inner struggle climax shortly after (or possible at the same time as) his or her outer struggle?
She accepts her name, but then lies about where she’s from at a college party, then drinks herself into oblivion and wakes up at the hospital.
Is there an epilogue/ aftermath/ denouement in which the challenge is finally resolved (or succumbed to), and we see how much the hero has changed (possibly through reversible behavior)
She goes to church and then calls her mom and leaves a message admitting that she loves Sacramento and her mom.
PART #4: SCENEWORK 18/20: The scene where she hits on Kyle in the parking lot
The Set-Up: Does this scene begin with the essential elements it needs?
Were tense and/or hopeful (and usually false) expectations for this interaction established beforehand?
He said before that he wished she’d been flirting with him, and he’d see her at the Deuce, which she assumed was someplay really cool.
Does the scene eliminate small talk and repeated beats by cutting out the beginning (or possibly even the middle)?
No, it starts at the beginning.
Is this an intimidating setting that keeps characters active?
She’s a little intimidated, because all of these kids are cooler than she is, and she’s definitely discombobulated to find out that the Deuce is just a parking lot.
Is one of the scene partners not planning to have this conversation (and quite possibly has something better to do)?
He’s reading a book when she approaches him and he’s reluctant to put it down.
Is there at least one non-plot element complicating the scene?
Jenna is making out with her boyfriend, distracting Lady Bird.  His dad has cancer.
Does the scene establish its own mini-ticking-clock (if only through subconscious anticipation)?
Not really.
The Conflict: Do the conflicts play out in a lively manner?
Does this scene both advance the plot and reveal character through emotional reactions?
Yes.
Does the audience have (or develop) a rooting interest in this scene (which may sometimes shift)?
Our rooting interest is complicated.  We love Lady Bird, but we’re not really on board with this guy, so we’re starting to want our heroine to not get what she wants.  (But we’re also seeing that the theater activity she’s skipping is now run by a football coach and amusingly lame.)
Are two agendas genuinely clashing (rather than merely two personalities)?
Not really in that they both want to sleep with the other, but yes in that he wants her to be something she isn’t, so her desire to be with him puts her in conflict with herself.. 
Does the scene have both a surface conflict and a suppressed conflict (one of which is the primary conflict in this scene)?
Surface conflict: Will he agree to a date?  Suppresed conflict: Who am I?
Is the suppressed conflict (which may or may not come to the surface) implied through subtext (and/or called out by the other character)?
When she pushes her “cool girl” thing too far and threatens to kill his family, he pauses and then says “What?”asdf
Are the characters cagy (or in denial) about their own feelings?
She’s pretending to be blasé but she’s asdaf anything but.
Do characters use verbal tricks and traps to get what they want, not just direct confrontation?
He pretends that he’s getting her number so that his band can play his café.
Is there re-blocking, including literal push and pull between the scene partners (often resulting in just one touch)?
He has her write her number on his hand.
Are objects given or taken, representing larger values?
A pen to write the number.
The Outcome: Does this scene change the story going forward?
As a result of this scene, does at least one of the scene partners end up doing something that he or she didn’t intend to do when the scene began?
Well, he had previously announced that he liked flirting with her, but he wasn’t planning on following up until she pounced on him.
Does the outcome of the scene ironically reverse (and/or ironically fulfill) the original intention?
Not really.
Are previously-asked questions answered and new questions posed?
Previously asked: What’s the Deuce?  How much does he like me? New: Will he call?  Can she continue to impersonate the person he wants her to be?
Does the scene cut out early, on a question (possibly to be answered instantly by the circumstances of the next scene)?
We cut out early before they part ways, but not on a question.
Is the audience left with a growing hope and/or fear for what might happen next? (Not just in the next scene, but generally)
Well, again, we’re proud of her for going after and getting what she wants, but we’re not sure we approve of this guy.
PART #5: DIALOGUE 15/16
Empathetic: Is the dialogue true to human nature?
Does the writing demonstrate empathy for all of the characters?
Very much so.
Does each of the characters, including the hero, have a limited perspective?
Very much so.  The dad is the wisest, but even he has his blind spots.  
Do the characters consciously and unconsciously prioritize their own wants, rather than the wants of others?
Very much so. 
Are the characters resistant to openly admitting their feelings (to others and even to themselves)?
Yes.
Do the characters avoid saying things they wouldn’t say and doing things they wouldn’t do?
Yes.
Do the characters interrupt each other often?
Yes.
Specific: Is the dialogue specific to this world and each personality?
Does the dialogue capture the jargon and tradecraft of the profession and/or setting?
Coming of age movies don’t really have much jargon.
Are there additional characters with distinct metaphor families, default personality traits, and default argument strategies from the hero’s?
 Metaphor families: Mom: mom, Dad: dad, Danny: theater, Kyle: left-wing politics
Personality traits: Mom: Critical, guilt-inducing, Dad: pitiful, loving, Julie: chipper, Danny: friendly, Kyle: Cool
Default argument tactics: Mom: Gut-punching, Kyle: Diminishing the personal in favort the political
Heightened: Is the dialogue more pointed and dynamic than real talk?
Is the dialogue more concise than real talk?
Yes.
Does the dialogue have more personality than real talk?
Yes.
Are there minimal commas in the dialogue (the lines are not prefaced with Yes, No, Well, Look, or the other character’s name)?
Yes.
Do non-professor characters speak without dependent clauses, conditionals, or parallel construction?
Yes, even the intellectual speaks realistically.
Are the non-3-dimensional characters impartially polarized into head, heart and gut?
All characters are 3-dimensional, even the teachers.
Strategic: Are certain dialogue scenes withheld until necessary?
Does the hero have at least one big “I understand you” moment with a love interest or primary emotional partner?
She and her mom each reach out to the other in one-way ways, her mom with the letters she didn’t intend to send, the daughter with a phone message.  Maybe Metcalf would have won that Oscar if she’d picked up the phone at the end.
Is exposition withheld until the hero and the audience are both demanding to know it?
NA: Not much plot, not much exposition.  They never explain why she has a hispanic brother.
Is there one gutpunch scene, where the subtext falls away and the characters really lay into each other?
Several.
Part #6: Tone 9/10
Genre: Does the story tap into pre-established expectations?
Is the story limited to one genre (or multiple genres that are merged from the beginning?)
A straight-up coming of age tale.
Is the story limited to sub-genres that are compatible with each other, without mixing metaphors?
No sub-genres.
Does the ending satisfy most of the expectations of the genre, and defy a few others?
She grows up and moves away, but doesn’t find love.
Separate from the genre, is a consistent mood (goofy, grim, ‘fairy tale’, etc.) established early and maintained throughout?
Poignant, droll. 
Framing: Does the story set, reset, upset and ultimately exceed its own expectations?
Is there a dramatic question posed early on, which will establish in the audience’s mind which moment will mark the end of the story?
Well, we assume based on everything that it’ll end when she leaves town, but it goes a little longer, which tries our expectations a bit, but we accept it.
Does the story use framing devices to establish genre, mood and expectations?
Not really.
Are there characters whose situations prefigure various fates that might await the hero?
She worries she’ll end up loveless like her friend, broke like her parents, living at home like her brother.
Does foreshadowing create anticipation and suspense (and refocus the audience’s attention on what’s important)?
Danny’s gayness is certainly foreshadowed.
Are reversible behaviors used to foreshadow and then confirm change?
Refusing to be called by her name.  This always tells us that the movie will end with a character accepting her name.
Is the dramatic question answered at the very end of the story?
The story goes a bit past the end of the main dramatic question: Will she leave town?  But then we realize the real question: Will she accept her mom and what her town has done for her?
PART 7: THEME 13/14
Difficult: Is the meaning of the story derived from a fundamental moral dilemma?
Can the overall theme be stated in the form of an irreconcilable good vs. good (or evil vs. evil) dilemma?
Contentment vs. ambition. 
Is a thematic question asked out loud (or clearly implied) in the first half, and left open?
The first line:Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?”
Do the characters consistently have to choose between goods, or between evils, instead of choosing between good and evil?
 Hang onto friends who may be holding you back? Kyle represents justice but not decency.
Grounded: Do the stakes ring true to the world of the audience?
Does the story reflect the way the world works?
Very much so.
Does the story have something authentic to say about this type of setting (Is it based more on observations of this type of setting than ideas about it)?
Very much so.  It begins with a quote: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”
- Joan Didion
Does the story include twinges of real life national pain?
They keep watching the Iraq war on TV.
Are these issues and the overall dilemma addressed in a way that avoids moral hypocrisy?
Yes.
Do all of the actions have real consequences?
Yes.
Subtle: Is the theme interwoven throughout so that it need not be discussed often?
Do many small details throughout subtly and/or ironically tie into the thematic dilemma?
 Listening to the end “The Grapes of Wrath” at the beginning (in which California is un-nurturing, but a character is saved by breast-feeding.)  9/11 posters symbolize the danger of New York City.
Are one or more objects representing larger ideas exchanged throughout the story, growing in meaning each time?
Maybe the cast?  The math grade book.  First Kyle’s reading “The People’s History of the United States” then she’s reading it.  Writing boys’ names on her wall then painting over it.
Untidy: Is the dilemma ultimate irresolvable?
Does the ending tip towards one side of the thematic dilemma without resolving it entirely?
 She chooses ambition but realizes she also needs to accept that she should have been more loving towards her mom and her town.
Does the story’s outcome ironically contrast with the initial goal?
She seeks out the comforts of home (church and calling her mom) in New York.
In the end, is the plot not entirely tidy (some small plot threads left unresolved, some answers left vague)?
She still hasn’t found love.  She still hasn’t told anyone the truth about being from Sacramento.
Do the characters refuse (or fail) to synthesize the meaning of the story, forcing the audience to do that?
No, she basically synthesizes it.

Final Score: 107 out of 122

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