Rob Edelman: Greta Grows Up

Nov 6, 2017

Back in 2012, in a piece on Greta Gerwig, I observed that she was all over movie screens. She recently had appeared in Whit Stillman’s DAMSELS IN DISTRESS and Woody Allen’s TO ROME WITH LOVE, and what was so engaging about her was her naturalistic screen presence. She was appealingly at ease onscreen. Once the cameras rolled, it did not seem as if she was acting. She was just, well, becoming her characters. Most often, they were young women who were approaching or who had approached adulthood and, in a film titled FRANCES HA, which also dates from 2012, her character was, indeed, quintessential Greta Gerwig. Here, she co-scripted with the director, Noah Baumbach, and she played a twentysomething who was flitting through life, attempting to figure out her relationships and where she fits in. Ultimately, she was trying to learn how to be a grown-up. 

In her latest film, which is titled LADY BIRD, Gerwig, who now is past thirty, does not appear on-camera. She only scripts and directs; playing her very young title character is one of our most deservedly acclaimed actors. That would be Saoirse Ronan, cast as a high school senior who is coming of age in Sacramento, California, in 2002. Her name is Christine, but she proudly calls herself Lady Bird.

Like so many precocious young people, Lady Bird has artistic aspirations. She is anxious to go out into the world and experience the world. Now on one level, this is a standard coming-of-age story. At one point, Lady Bird falls for a fellow student, and both dream of heading off to Paris. Later on, there is a second student to whom she is attracted. And then there are her parents. Her father is easygoing and supportive, while she and her mother constantly are at odds as they deal with mother-daughter issues. 

Does all this sound familiar? For indeed, these days, so many contemporary films focus on adolescent angst. One in fact will be screened on Thursday evening, November 9th, at The Linda, WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio. It is titled AS YOU ARE, it was filmed in the Albany area, and it charts the complex relationship between some very different high school seniors. AS YOU ARE is ambitious. It is serious. In its best moments it is attention-grabbing but it also is flawed, with too-many one-note characters-- starting with a father who is predictably brutal.

But back to LADY BIRD. Subject-wise, there is nothing extraordinary about this film, but it really is well-done. Its characters are nuanced and three-dimensional, and they come alive onscreen. In particular, Gerwig’s script is clever, and is loaded with zippy observations and one-liners. And finally, there is the acting. Tracy Letts and particularly Laurie Metcalf score big as Lady Bird’s parents-- and then there is Saoirse Ronan, who literally becomes Lady Bird.

Let me add that the film was screened at the Toronto International Film Festival. Much of the scuttlebutt that emerges from Toronto involves who will come away with Oscar nominations. Well, one will not be surprised if Ronan and also Laurie Metcalf respectively earn Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress citations. And as for Greta Gerwig, a question might be: Where will her career be headed? Will she ever be viewed as little more than a flavor of the month? In five years, will filmgoers wonder: Gee, whatever happened to, what’s her name, Greta Gerwig? Well, if LADY BIRD is evidence, her screen career is only just beginning.

Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.

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