Essay, Film Review

Oscar Watch: ‘Lady Bird’ (2017)

A Raw Review of ‘Lady Bird’

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I thought Lady Bird was going to be about old ladies.

This is the purest review I can possibly write about a film because I went in with close to zero background on the film. I saw no previews, I didn’t read another review, I didn’t know who directed the film or who was staring in it. I wish it was possible to go into all movies I watch without seeing a trailer or hearing “what it’s about,” it’s the most pure way to watch. I won’t be able to write this kind of review when I finally get around to watching the The Shape of Water or Downsizing. Those films have been marketed to me non-stop. It is refreshing being able to write and think about a film in the way I get to for Lady Bird.

If you’re someone who would like to do the same thing you should come back and read this review later because I’m going to spoil a lot.

The only information I had going to see the film was that it was nominated for a Golden Globe and would probably get Oscar nominations and the movie poster which leads in this review. Otherwise I came in blind and probably looked pretty silly watching a teenage coming of age film all by myself but hey, that’s what happened. As I write this sentence, I still don’t know the names of the actors or the director. I know the mother as the actress from Big Bang Theory and Roseanne. I’ll look those names up in the course of writing this review.

The phrase “slice of life” is being used to describe film and other art like Lady Bird. I am seeing it used in a very pejorative manner. It’s just another “slice of life” book or film or comic. I’ve written a little about this phenomenon in one of my reviews about the comic Royal City by Jeff Lemire. Lemire even seeks to avoid the label. And while I understand not wanting to have one’s work thrown into a bucket marked “slice of life,” it’s also unfortunate that people are ready to throw out art because it might just be a picture or moment of life through some character’s eyes. That’s what all art is anyway. It is all an abstract viewpoint created by the artist and consumed by those that are interested.

By that definition whenever I write about a film, a comic, a book, or an album, I’m also writing about a slice of life.

Lady Bird reminded me of my step sisters. The base of the film is that a lower middle class family has a daughter they somehow afford to get into a posh Catholic school in Sacramento. I went to a public schools my whole life but when I added step sisters to my prefixed sibling group, they were already going to one of the better Catholic schools in the Los Angeles area and our family did not have very much money at all. I didn’t live in my father’s house but I know it to have been a weird struggle for him and tuition was mostly paid in the end by the girls’ more well to do grandparents.

There was a familiarity with some of the situations Lady Bird found herself in the film, when I visited my father’s house there would often be rich kids that really didn’t belong around us but were friends of the family based solely on my step sister’s charisma. I’m sure there are other parallels to Lady Bird and my step sister but I wasn’t a poor teenager in a nice Catholic school in 2003 so I can’t speak much to those.

That was my base and where my mind was in the first few minutes of putting together what I was watching in the cinema.

My second observation was that the story was at least semi-autobiographical. The details were spot on. For example, growing up in 2003 while the US attacks on Iraq were commencing on the news was something always on in the background.

Although the plot was too on Lady Bird the teenager, the film did touch on an idea that is always on my mind.  Things can be sad at different levels. Lady Bird was dealing with an important personal moment and trying to deal with her own personal turmoil and someone pointed all the dead civilians around the world to which she rightly freaked out about. In anger she made a point that both can be sad and both can be important.

Americans and Western Europeans and few other first world countries have to deal with the moral balance all of the time. We are wired to worry to about what’s happening around us. That’s what’s important and even more to a young girl in the trenches of figuring out who and what she is, what she thinks and where all of these moments and experiences will take her. Yes, there are sick and dying people all over the world. There’s a sensitivity there we should never let float away but it’s difficult to rebel against our own wiring even if it is something we wanted.

I always think of Alain de Botton and his very interesting video about first world problems. The intro paragraph reads:

“Many issues are nowadays dismissed as mere ‘first world problems’. But the problems of the first world are deeply important and need to get addressed—as the whole planet will eventually have them.”

These problems are what get labeled “slice of life.” Du Botton says in the video that our happiness is relative and comparative and we don’t compare our level of happiness to the way our parents lived or to the more poor countries in the world.

Lady Bird, as a young 17 and 18 year old, does exactly this, not because she’s evil but because she’s a child turning into an adult. Films like this help us recognize who we were and who we are today, how we grew, and how we can help those around us who are dealing with these first world problems grow. Even if we’re not white Northern Californian females who graduated high school in 2003.

Aside from Lady Bird herself, Lady Bird’s mother is a great character who wears all her faults on her sleeve. She is a lot like her daughter in that she speaks up and says what she believes needs to be said. Unfortunately some of things are hurtful and aren’t the nurturing things one would expect to come from a mother. Lady Bird’s mother is one of the subtle details that make the film’s base semi-autobiographical obvious. Laurie Metcalf plays a wonderful part as a mother that has to balance double shifts in a hospital and raising a free thinking teenage girl.

The film deserves the praise it’s been getting and each piece. The acting is superb across the board and we get just the right amount teenage girl time we need, our time with Lady Bird and her life’s journey may have only been an inch long, her slice of life was mile deep.