Tag Archives: B+

LADY BIRD

Producer: Scott Rudin, Eli Bush and Evelyn O'Neill
Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothee Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smiyh, Stwphen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott, Jake McDorman, John Karna, Bayne Gibby and Laura Marano
Studio: A24 Films

B+

A coming-of-age film that stands head and shoulders above most in that popular genre, “Lady Bird” represents the debut of actress Greta Gerwig as both solo writer and director (she has previously collaborated with Noah Baumbach and Joe Swanberg in those capacities), and it’s an auspicious one. Smart, incisive and emotionally satisfying, it’s both specific (being semi-autobiographical) and universal in its observations about teen angst.

Playing a character who is essentially the younger Gerwig (the film is set in 2002-2003), Saoirse Ronan is a revelation as Christine McPherson, who’s unhappy with everything—her hometown of Sacramento, which she considers stifling, her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who’s bossy and (so it seems to Christine) cheap, and her school, the Catholic Eternal Flame Academy, where she and her BFF Jules (Beanie Feldstein) negotiate the campus. She even dislikes her given name, so she changes it to Lady Bird—something her loving dad Larry (Tracy Letts) accepts genially but Marion abhors. She also finds her adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his live-in girlfriend constant irritants.

Lady Bird’s major desire is to get out of town—specifically, to go to college in New York City. That seems an unlikely possibility, given that her grades are mediocre and the family finances grim (Larry has just lost his job, and Marion is working double shifts at a hospital to keep them above water). Her only bet, her mother insists during a local college tour that ends rather abruptly when Lady Bird tries to escape Marion’s nagging, is to choose a nearby school with in-state tuition. But Lady Bird, with Larry’s connivance, will nevertheless submit applications to more distant schools in hopes of getting a scholarship.

She’s also interested in romance, and finds it—she thinks—with Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges), a drama club star (specializing in singing roles) and all-around nice guy. For awhile that works out well, but there’s an abrupt end to the relationship, and she moves on to Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet), a too-cool-for-school guitarist who enjoys striking rebellious poses. Linking up with him takes her into a richer crowd, and to fit in she not only affects being well-to-do herself but drops Jules from her circle in favor of Jenna (Odeya Rush), the campus mean girl. Needless to say, that does not work out well.

Other things do, however, and like Gerwig, Lady Bird eventually finds her way to New York. She also comes to realize that Marion is no monster, but a woman who has been struggling to make the best of a bad situation for her family, as well as the importance of real friends. The learning curve, moreover, is not one-sided.

As both writer and director, Gerwig handles all these major plot points with incisiveness and skill. She’s helped enormously by an exceptional cast. Ronan is simply inspired here; she might have taken Gerwig as a model in external terms (including, presumably, the red dye job on her hair), but adds to the character a full inner life that becomes almost palpable. Metcalf matches her with a ferociously real turn that ensures her consideration at awards time. Hedges, who is quickly becoming the go-to guy for teens with obstacles to overcome, captures a very different tone from the ones he expressed in “Manchester by the Sea” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and Chalamet, whose resumé is also expanding rapidly, makes sullen Kyle both attractive and a mite appalling. Feldstein is a delightful newcomer, giving Jules genuine poignancy, and Letts does the same with supportive Larry.

Moving beyond the basic plot, Gerwig adds to the scenario plenty of amusing grace notes. The school scenes are enlivened by the presence of veteran Lois Smith as the genial old nun who oversees the place, and the drama club interludes by that of Stephen McKinley Henderson, as the priest who serves as its sponsor—an overweight, weepy fellow who gets a mite too invested in his work (when he’s abruptly replaced by the school’s football coach, it makes for a hilarious change of approach).

Gerwig also assembled a talented behind-the-scenes crew, who give the picture a professional look that belies what was undoubtedly a modest budget. Chris Jones’ production design and April Napier’s costumes provide a period feel without undue exaggeration, and Sam Levy’s cinematography makes excellent use of the locations in Sacramento and New York. Nick Houy’s crisp editing and Jon Brion’s unassuming score are also positives.

Greta Gerwig has already proven herself one of our most watchable young actresses, adept in both comedy and drama. Now she’s shown that she’s an accomplished writer and skillful director as well. And at least in this case, her own life has provided her with ample inspiration: “Lady Bird” is an exceptional portrait of a fraught mother-daughter relationship, both funny and touching.

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Producer: Graham Broadbent, Peter Czernin and Martin McDonagh
Director: Martin McDonagh
Writer: Martin McDonagh
Stars: Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Abbie Cornish, Clarke Peters, John Hawkes, Kerry Condon, Kathryn Newton, Zeljko Ivanek, Sandy Martin, Brendan Sexton III , Amanda Warren, Darrell Britt-Gibson and Nick Searcy
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures

B+

Playwright Martin McDonagh’s third film is his best, a cunning and surprisingly moving tale of an implacable maternal demand for justice and the blowback it engenders. Marked by McDonagh’s characteristic mixture of telling drama and bitter humor, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” may be burdened with an unwieldy title, but it advertises one of the year’s most compelling films.

Frances McDormand, in a performance that serves to cap a brilliant trilogy—the two earlier ones being “Fargo” and the HBO mini-series “Olive Kitteridge”—is Mildred Hayes, who runs the town’s gift shop. She is a severe, plain-spoken person by nature, and she harbors a need for retribution: her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton) was raped and murdered walking home one night along the lonely road that leads to the Hayes house, and her body burned. The culprit has not been caught, and a flashback to the night of the crime reveals why even if he were, Mildred would find it difficult to forgive herself. Still, identifying the person responsible is all she can think about.

That’s why she decides to rent three old, decrepit billboards that line the road where Angela was killed from Red (Caleb Landry Jones), the geeky guy who runs the Ebbing ad firm, and to plaster them with a simple message: “Raped White Dying…And Still No Arrest…How Come, Chief Willoughby?” The accusation singles out Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), whom she blames for the failure of the law to find Angela’s killer.

One might think that Willoughby would turn out to be a corrupt, or simply lazy, small-town cop who hasn’t worked the case professionally. But it turns out that he’s a dedicated, almost Andy Taylor type who’s taken all the right moves but wound up empty-handed. He’s a decent family man with a nice family—a wife (Abbie Cornish) and two little daughters he treats with great affection. He’s also dying of pancreatic cancer—something that he thinks might cause Mildred to reconsider the billboards, and is one reason why townspeople generally side with him against the gruff, grieving mother, who even berates the priest (Nick Searcy) who visits to suggest that she might do well to take the messages down.

It’s here that the script pulls the rug out from under our feet; her response to Willoughby’s condition is to observe coldly that the billboards wouldn’t be half so effective after he’d “croaked.” What might have easily become one of those standard-issue stories about a mother driven to seek—and find—justice for her dead child against an entrenched, callous bureaucracy suddenly becomes something much more complicated and disquieting, while remaining blisteringly funny.

That human complexity extends to the film’s other characters as well. There’s Mildred’s ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes), an ex-cop who left her for a younger, none-too-bright but amiable girl named Penelope (Samara Weaving) and finds her obsession dangerous. And their son Robbie (Lucas Hedges), who lives with his mother and is frustrated with the tack she’s taken. And James (Peter Dinklage), who harbors a crush on Mildred so strong that when she does something unwise, he gives her an alibi in hopes that doing so will endear him to her.

Most remarkable of all the other characters, though, is Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a racist, dimwitted officer with a brutally contemptuous old hag of a mother (Sandy Martin). For some reason Willoughby has treated Dixon with a degree of consideration the guy really doesn’t deserve, and Dixon responds with loyalty to his chief so complete that when Mildred attacks Willoughby, he’ll promptly arrest the gift shop clerk (Amanda Warren), who happens to be black, on a bogus charge, and then unleash his anger on Red.

Yet Dixon also changes, becoming in a weird, unsettling fashion a symbol of hope when he suffers punishing losses but becomes a better man, believing that he might have solved the riddle of Angela’s murder in the way that Willoughby predicted it could be solved (by accident), and actually making common cause with Mildred in the process. McDonagh doesn’t deal with this in any sort of maudlin fashion—he, McDormand and Rockwell are far too astute for such a miscalculation, adding a dollop of dark comedy to the mix. Yet the ending of “Three Billboards,” like so much of the film, literally goes off in a direction you’re unlikely to anticipate.

McDonagh’s script is full of clever twists and pointed dialogue, much of it presented theatrically in the form of well-structured, slightly unnatural conversations, and he secures amazing performances from McDormand and Rockwell in particular. But Harrelson, Hedges, Dinklage and Jones all offer splendid work as well, and while Hawkes, Weaving, Newton, Martin, Zeljko Ivanek (as the nervous sergeant in charge of the Ebbing office) and Clarke Peters (as an outsider law enforcement figure) have only limited screen time, they all register strongly. Production designer Inbal Weinberg and cinematographer Ben Davis succeed in making the North Carolina locations a convincing stand-in for the Midwest (Davis also manages one remarkable tracking sequence involving Rockwell and Jones), Jon Gregory’s editing makes the many dialogue scenes move along crisply, and Carter Burwell’s score adds a homey feel to the unorthodox proceedings.

“Three Billboards” is the sort of film that would benefit from multiple viewings, but you definitely shouldn’t miss seeing it at least once.