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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Lady Bird' captures something 'elementally correct' about teen condition

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For those of you with '80s roots or a healthy sense of nostalgia for an era you weren't actually alive during, imagine the best possible sort of John Hughes movie. Not the overly sentimentalized stuff , the dubious racist overtones where the joke was almost always on the outsider with different colored skin, or when he'd lost his fastball and was throwing a steady stream of sliders (Some Kind of Wonderful) you had more or less already seen before.

Instead, those moments in Sixteen Candles, or Weird Science, we'll say, where he seemed to capture something so elementally correct about the human teen condition -- its churning chaos, and everyone's desperate bid to try and match a series of feelings and predilections to an actual identity -- it was if he were writing seated at a den filled with his angst-ridden protagonists as they wailed and laughed and sobbed their stories out to him.

Lady Bird

89 Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothee Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott, Jake McDorman, John Karna, Bayne Gibby, Laura Marano

Director: Greta Gerwig

Rating: R, for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes

To that, add a kind of intellectual erudition that Hughes never attempted, and a notation of detail so precise, young adults of the millennial era might find themselves in a state of almost constant swoon. Throw in a scintillating sense of comic timing, and a young actress able to convey the history of her character's suffering and humiliation with the barest of glances, and you start to get the picture of Greta Gerwig's charming directorial debut.

Gerwig, a Sacramento native, has crafted a narrative about a young woman entering her senior year of high school in 2002, still foraging for an identity, and dappled it with enough autobiographical details to give it the lived-in feel of a journal entry. It feels all too painfully accurate; even as it's spinning in directions her life never took.

Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), has big ideas about what she wants to be and how she wants to present herself -- as the film opens, she has just taken to calling herself this new nickname that she wants everyone else to adopt -- but hasn't yet figured out the proper way to get from one place to another. She wants all the potential possibilities afforded a brilliant kid with amazing grades, but doesn't actually have the grades or the genius to get there directly. In order for her to get her life where she wants it to be, she has to find a workaround means of arrival.

At constant odds with her long-suffering, no-nonsense mother (Laurie Metcalf) -- in the film's memorable opening scene, she gets into an argument in the car with her mother about where she wants to go to college that culminates in her opening the passenger door and intentionally falling out of the moving vehicle -- while comforting her kindly father (Terry Letts) recently laid off, and trying to attain a different social status at the cost of her longtime best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Lady Bird flits about different relationships, including one with Danny (Lucas Hedges), a sweet-natured, still-closeted student from her drama club; and a bad-boy liaison with Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, from Call Me By Your Name), a nihilistic anticapitalist musician who reads Kant in his spare time, as if trying on different wigs to see which one works best with her face.

There's nothing particularly remarkable in the film's narrative arc; there have been dozens of restless teen films over the years. What makes Gerwig's film such a triumph is all in the myriad details she gets exactly right in the crafting of her characters -- up to and including the celebrated soundtrack, which startlingly makes a lion out of Dave Matthews' hoary "Crash Into Me," among other things -- and the details of place (one character refers to Sacramento as "the Midwest of California") that help to fix it down in perfect specificity. Gerwig has always been a talented writer, even in her earliest mumblecore days, but here, given a full -- and very talented -- cast to work with, she also shows a wise and knowing touch with her actors. Her scenes pop and crackle with energy, and it feels as if no frame is wasted in the process.

To that end, casting the ultra-talented Ronan in the lead role was an inspired choice. It's not so much that she's unrecognizable from previous roles -- everything from the lead in the action thriller Hannah, to 2015's lilting Brooklyn -- it's that her style manages to stretch and incorporate utterly different characters via the expansiveness of her tool set. A bit like the sorely missed Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was always recognizable, but never static. Ronan's chemistry with her castmates is always first rate, but her work here with Metcalf is particularly sharp. We see all the contradictions and selfish weaknesses in Lady Bird's character, but we pull for her anyway precisely because she has become so fully dimensional to us.

At its heart, too, through all of its sweetly comic undertones -- and laugh out loud bits of extemporaneous dialogue that flows through Gerwig's script like a guzzle of warm syrup -- it's an emotionally powerful evocation of the way loving parents and their children have to forge a way to learn to live apart from one another. "I want you to be the very best version of yourself you can be," her mother tells her at one point, and Lady Bird's struggle to figure out just who that might be is thoroughly captivating.

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Leading lady Saoirse Ronan and writer-director Greta Gerwig work on the set of Gerwig’s first feature Lady Bird — for the mom... + Enlarge

MovieStyle on 12/01/2017

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