Oscar Nominations 2018 – FILM REVIEW: Ladybird (2017)

Dir: Greta Gerwig

Nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf), Best Original Screenplay.

Score: ★★★★☆

Greta Gerwig has been one to watch for many years. She is easily the defining star of the so called American mumblecore indie movement, but it’s most notably her collaborations with her partner, noted writer director Noah Baumbach (perhaps best known for his collaborations with Wes Anderson) that have defined the onscreen image of Gerwig. Mostly portraying somewhat gleeful yet depressive, earnest yet a tad foolish characters, she occupies worlds that have a sort of ageing hipster meets affluent intelligentsia vibe. Sort of half way between a Woody Allen movie and an episode of Girls. It’s clear from seeing Gerwig’s solo directorial and writing debut that the voice that lived inside Frances Ha, Greenberg & Mistress America is present here even with the absence of Gerwig’s physical presence on screen. Saoirse Ronan is sometimes mis-cast in roles that stretch her acting talent outside the realms of her capability or believability, but not here. She proves the perfect avatar for Gerwig, entirely taking on the rhythms of her dialogue,  general pysical tempo and cadence of the director’s onscreen persona. At times one might even mistake her for being Gerwig herself based on these factors alone. Again, much like characters in a work by Woody Allen or Lena Dunham, Gerwig’s central character Christine “Ladybird” McPherson is just Gerwig’s own self channelled into another human being. That’s not to say the film is an autobiographical one, but it’s clear Gerwig draws on her own life and observations from the world around her.

 

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Lead actress Saoirse Ronan & writer director Greta Gerwig on set.

The film revolves around Ladybird’s coming of age story as she makes her way through the latter stage of Catholic High School on her route to University and indeed life itself. Ladybird is reaching for something bigger than her reality would seem to immediately allow, aiming to attend Ivy League schools she doesn’t qualify for academically (or financially), or just trying to hang with the school’s popular rich kid by fudging her own socio-economic standing in order to impress. It’s also the tale of a young woman treading through the minefield of her first relationships and the growing pains associated with losing your virginity, learning who you are, and how to co-exist with those around you, some of whom you pick, like friends and some you don’t, like family. It’s a tender film that gently explores the everyday scenarios of a young girl moving into adulthood. There is a glut of gently funny dialogue from situations that everyone will recognise as well as a real humorous affection for the hubris displayed by teenagers during those troublesome years as well as a similar affection for the Catholic school experience.

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Ambitious catholic school girl Christine “Ladybird” McPherson.

Ladybird clashes frequently with her mum, brilliantly played by Laurie Metcalf. It’s a great role for someone who has been largely absent from our screens since being a true mainstay of 80s and 90s TV & film. Perhaps most famous for her role as Jackie, Roseanne’s sister on Roseanne, she popped up in so many notable films from the era ranging from Uncle Buck to JFK she was once an integral part of the Hollywood landscape, but given her recent career decline it’s possible this film could do for Metcalf what Pulp Fiction did for John Travolta. Much like Tarantino who would bring his favourite, currently underused, actors back from yesteryear (Harvey Keitel, Robert Forster, Pam Grier and of course Travolta) Gerwig has plucked Metcalf from the pop culture landscape of her youth and given her a cracking role that could easily see her scoop best supporting actress at the Oscars. It’s at times hard to watch Metcalfe’s performance because there is such an undercurrent of reality to it, despite the relatively light hearted nature of this film, Metcalfe’s character and performance is claustrophobic and grounded, tapping into all the true life unique dynamics that can occur in mother daughter relationships.

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Saoirse Ronan & Laurie Metcalf go shopping.

Almost everyone in Ladybird is well cast across the board, most notably Gerwig has managed to help cement the reps of two of tinsel town’s newest go to guys in Lucas Hedges (of Manchester By The Sea fame) and Timothee Chalamet (from Call Me By Your Name). Chalamet’s limits show a bit more here than they do in the masterful Call Me By Your Name, but he is cast so well as a self important, pseudo-intellectual boy in the band love interest, that it’s of no consequence. Lucas Hedges is perfect as Ladybird’s seemingly squeaky clean polite affluent first boyfriend. The characters all have a casual but authentic depth to them that is cleverly born out in the acting and dialogue. The words the characters speak sound real, and even when they don’t, they largely feel real, or offer some truth. There are a few jokes that perhaps should have been left out and a few corny weak spots here and there, but overall it’s deceptively brilliant and easily one of the best films of the year.

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Ladybird and her seemingly perfect all American first boyfriend.

Despite being nicely shot, well paced, cleverly observed and witty, the truth is Ladybird is not major progress for this type of movie. There are many more interesting or more brilliant examples of movies in this coming of age indie-esque genre, but equally Ladybird doesn’t make many missteps and is of real quality. This is a film not to be missed and Gerwig is certainly breaking out of the pack at the right time. With “women’s year” in full swing the academy will be strongly considering rewarding a female director, if they don’t award Guillermo Del Toro for The Shape Of Water. In fact this is a better film than the shape of water so it would be entirely justified. This would launch Gerwig into what is currently only sadly a very small of club of award winning female filmmakers. On the plus side, being at the vanguard of the women’s film maker movement and being talked about in the same breath as the likes of Sofia Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow, could offer Gerwig some of the most amazing opportunities ever afforded to a woman in the history of film. I for one, cannot wait to see what she does next.

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