Monday, November 20, 2017

Review: "Lady Bird" is a Funny, Touching Ode to Youthful Doubt

Scene from Lady Bird
Lady Bird is a rare achievement. It's a movie about what it means to be Catholic in the 21st century. While there isn't a shortage of films in which God is prayed to (see also: Silence), director Greta Gerwig has tapped into something personal to uncover a more accurate reality. These aren't people who live their life by the church, but whose faith is so indebted to their identity that it informs every small decision they make, including the familiar teenage rebellion. Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan, is about to finish high school with dreams of going to a New York liberal college. With fraught relationships to her parents, she finishes the last year of school with a series of memorable experiences. They may not be the most overt faith-based details in any recent film, but they feel the most truthful. Lady Bird is a film that understands how youth and identity plays into the bigger picture, and Gerwig's excellent debut is all the better for it.

As the film once asks: what kind of name is "Lady Bird"? To Ronan's character, it's a name given to her by herself, and it's meant to establish her own identity. With colorful hair and a brightly colored arm brace, she discovers the conflicting worlds of a Sacramento Catholic school lifestyle. On one front, her friends have become more adventurous as they join theater to perform "Merrily We Roll Along," and partake in drugs and innocent vandalism. It's where Lady Bird discovers love for a boy (Lucas Hedges) and contemplates her future amid nuns who doubt that she's any good at math. Even if Lady Bird's inevitable goal is to leave, she thinks of the place fondly, in part because it's where she bonds with everyone and finds the best way to pass the time while trying to form her "perfect image" as an east coast student. At home, she has fights with her parents, including a depressed father (Tracey Letts) and conservative mother (Laurie Metcalf), of whom she has the most issues with.

The movie owes a lot of credit to Gerwig's script, which has an impeccable eye for student mischief. Where most people would focus on broad moments, she knows what it means to be Catholic. This is staring aimlessly while kneeling at a pew, awaiting to be blessed on Ash Wednesday, and even eating Communion wafers like Pringles. They're all tender moments, and ones that reflect how comforting faith can be, even as teenagers try to develop their own life away from the church. It's inescapable, but not in a begrudging way. Lady Bird turns to faith at various points in less conventional manners, hoping to find solace in her risky and sometimes foolish decisions. Nobody believes she can be better than her current self, which comes with the colored hair, frustration with boys, and an anarchic sense of humor.

Following the phenomenal performance in Brooklyn, Ronan finally does a straight comedy that shows her ability to handle teen angst. With a screwball style inspired by Gerwig's other films, she embodies a type of rebel who is more frustrated that nobody understands her expression. It isn't self-destructive, though it's fascinating to see the awkward and stumbling nature of Lady Bird as she tries to work out her problems. It's what leads to her eventual character growth in the third act, but starts off with plenty of witty moments that capture the vulnerability of youth and their lack of understanding within themselves. She doesn't entirely know what she does, and the humor draws from this experience. It's another great performance from Ronan, and will hopefully land her another Oscar nomination. She has never been this funny before, and manages to bring a sweetness to even the less pleasant moments.

Another aspect that makes the film feel like one of the first major 21st century Catholic movies is the detail. Lady Bird's faith isn't just in her personal and social life. It's in the world around her, which is the year 2002 (noted in the film for being a palindrome year). Technology was simpler, but this detail isn't played for needless twee jokes thankfully. The bigger detail, and what ties more into Ronan's ability to convey struggle with faith with so much as a glance, is the War on Terrorism. Lady Bird is seen watching nightly news as reports come in, almost mirroring her struggle with faith. While war isn't a big theme of the movie, it portrays the struggle to have faith in a world that's falling apart with breathtaking precision. Even if the story takes place within a Catholic church, it's secular enough that other audience members will get something out of the emotional journey. For those who understand the smaller details, it may be a flat out masterpiece.

Lady Bird is a phenomenal movie that manages to mix teenage angst with contemplation of faith accurately. With great direction from first timer Gerwig, she makes a personal journey through youth that has the ability to feel universal in spite of its niche setting. Ronan also delivers a phenomenal performance that ranks among her greatest work. It's a heartfelt movie, and one that will definitely leave an impression on those who can relate. Sacramento may be depicted as a boring city, but it's also a place that will feel familiar even for those who live far away. This is a charming film, and one of those rare films that understands what it means to have faith in the 21st century. It doesn't always involve supernatural plot twists. Sometimes it just involves a deeper change and understanding of one another. 

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