Sacramento Dreamin’ — Review of Ladybird

Ladybird (2017)

It is generally supposed that Conservatives are usually old people, and that those in favor of change are the young. That is not quite correct. Usually, Conservatives are young people: those who want to live but who do not think about how to live, and have not time to think, and therefore take as a model for themselves a way of life that they have seen.

-Leo Tolstoy, The Devil

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home,

Your house is on fire,

Your children shall burn!

- Nursery Rhyme

Don’t you worry about me. I’ll always come out on top.

- Pippi Longstocking

Greta Gerwig’s “Ladybird” is a high school, coming of age film featuring a heroine. Since the 1950s this genre has highlighted the male experience. In the seminal “Rebel Without a Cause”, the mid century paean to American teenage disaffection, Natalie Wood was a breathtaking side-show to James Dean’s brooding main event. There is no mistaking Gerwig, as writer/director, has given birth to a woman’s world. Christine, whose self chosen nom de guerre is ‘Ladybird’, is the centerpiece of a sorority that buffets against authority figures, who happen to be mostly women. Although the film focuses on adolescent self- realization, it manages to paint this struggle as both dignified and hilarious. It brings to mind “The Breakfast Club”, a less accomplished 1980s film about misfits breaking down the school’s caste system. “Ladybird”’s carefree zeitgeist is closer to an earlier feature, the cultural juggernaut “American Graffiti”, a hagiography to post-war Pax Americana. They share a protagonist’s small town California roots and the post senior year decision to follow their manifest destiny to a fancy East Coast college. These are very different films as the 1976 blockbuster stuck to lighter themes and relied on a catchy soundtrack of recycled hits from the previous decade. It was wonderful cultural candy and its mass appeal spawned the mega hit TV Show “Happy Days”. “Ladybird” is a quieter, more substantive work that abandons the fraternity without sacrificing fun. It pushes the envelope on what can be cinematically accomplished, both in and out of high school. There is scientific evidence that girls mature faster than boys (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/science/science-news/10529134/Girls-really-do-mature-quicker-than-boys-scientists-find.html ). Gerwig is proof that this truism leads to more satisfying dramas about the delicate twilight-zone of late childhood.

The opening sequence of “Ladybird” shows our hero and her mother in a car on the outskirts of their hometown Sacramento. They are returning from a tour of nearby colleges. They are sobbing as they listen to a the final scene in a books-on-tape reading of “The Grapes of Wrath”. It is a passing moment but it speaks to the ironies that are revealed as the film progresses. The Steinbeck classic features dust bowl refugees fleeing to the promise land of California. Ladybird’s family are the metaphorical children of those hardscrabble pioneers. Their existence is certainly better than depression era Oklahoma. They do not face starvation or locusts, but their economic and emotional status is precarious. The mother works two shifts as a psychiatric nurse. Her meager salary supports her husband, a laid off computer technician, their adult son and his live-in girlfriend, in addition to Ladybird. Needless to say the matriarch is stressed. The daughter is oblivious to her family’s struggle. She is consumed by her world; or more precisely — the suggestion of wealthy, cosmopolitan living.

On paper, the responsible mother would seem more sympathetic then a narcissistic teen daughter. Gerwig’s brilliant writing/directing combined with Saoirse Ronan’s embodiment of the character unleashes Ladybird’s charm. This performance is a tour-de-force rendered even more incredible when you consider the actress is able to completely hide her Irish brogue and European mannerisms. Her character’s ripostes, whether delivered by dialogue or gesture, overpowers the matriarch’s endless carping. Ditto for the attempts by siblings, teachers and counselors to temper her spirit. Ladybird is loveably defiant, even when she’s wrong. The numerous scenes with the parochial school authority figures highlight her uncompromising individualism. What makes these scenes memorable is the teachers stretch far beyond their habits and priest collars. They are part of the larger dynamic which goes against the conventional approach in this genre. The 1980s classic, “Fast Times at Ridgemount High”, teachers are mere set-pieces that function to highlight the “real” drama surrounding the students. “Ladybird” contains numerous miniature sketches of the various faculty. Although these people are secondary to the drama, the audience cannot help being swept up in their own stories. The traumatized priest who directs the school plays is a histrionic man with a gothic backstory. There is a sense of comic grief when he exclaims, remarking on the audience reaction to his work, “they don’t get it”. Ditto when he exclaims “YES!” at the conclusion of The Tempest, which is directed by his stand-in, the football coach. That person’s one brief scene is comically mesmerizing as he applies sports metaphors to stage direction. Everyone is respectful as, unbeknownst to Ladybird, this is a caring institution. The adults in the audience realize, through life’s endless waves of institutional indifference, what a special cocoon our heroine is experiencing. The embodiment of this ideal is the headmistress. This cheerful old soul is gracious towards all of her charges. She is especially indulgent of Ladybird’s various tresspasses. She is the mirror image of the principle in Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore”. That character is the stock disciplinarian who expels the iconoclastic high school hero after a particularly grievous prank. In “Ladybird” the mother-superior laughs off the heroine’s grand misdeed, even adding a self-deprecating joke. This is part of the warm background in which two pivotal relationships ebb and flow. The arc of the film revolves around what it means to be a good daughter and faithful friend.

It is common in many dramas for mothers and female friends to be subjugated as background to the male love interest. Gerwig tenderly relegates boyfriends as comic relief to highlight the importance of sorority. More significantly it is the women who provide the critical mentoring. Ladybird’s brother’s girlfriend briefly shares a post Thanksgiving cigarette which subtly sheds light on the mother’s generosity. This plants the seed that behind being an annoying scold, this overburdened woman, has a heart. This is not a blanket pardon for her mistreatment of Ladybird, but rather an important plot point that shapes our understanding of the complicated mother/daughter strife. The most significant life lesson ironically comes from a truly awful character, the wealthy girl who briefly usurps her connection with her true friend. In both cases the writing is succinct but brimming with detail that would have exhausted pages of dialogue with a lesser writer/director. The pool scene is particularly well executed. The heretofore slick worldly classmate morphs into a provincial bore with a few pointed questions. Once again Gerwig, although employing stock characters, always manages to provide small, careful details to generate empathy. Ladybird’s second boyfriend is a rich pretentious, sophomoric, jerk, yet the brief shot of his father passed out in the chair in the middle of the day is a potent reminder of the limits of money can buy. One cannot help but contrast this sad drunk with Ladybird’s own unemployed father. He might have given up hope for himself, but carefully puts up a cheerful front. This is what real father do. Ladybird is startled to learn he is on anti-depression medication and that he notices her insistence that she drop him off, in his second hand car, at least a block away from school. She has her adolescent appearances to manage. Becoming an adult means recognizing the cruelty of your actions. This is coupled with the even more painful knowledge that others known your faults, but stay silent out of kindness. No doubt she has many such realizations which leads to her reconciliation with her true friend. Behaving properly is not to please others, but to be a better person. Good deeds are a heartfelt affirmation of what really matters in a world of harsh serendipity.

The latter part of the film gravitates from the safety of adolescent adventure to the adult world of economic hardship. The emotional cost of being ambitious is played out on a number of fronts. Some characters are able to continue school, while others must work. Some get jobs and other remain unemployed. It is all handled without long speeches or maudlin outbursts. This film has a taught sense of storytelling. A small example is the brother who is a different race. This is never mentioned. Is he a step brother from a previous marriage? Is he adopted? The writer/director never touches the subject, which shows a confidence in mastering the material. Another example would be the brief eye-contact between two family members, who suddenly realize they are competing for the same job. The significant moment revealing raw emotion plays beautifully. A lesser artist would assume the need for emotional fireworks. Yet the pithy execution of these scenes and plot points are at the heart of the wonderful craftwork behind this film.

There is, however, a problem with the final sequence. The mis-fire centers around the moment Ladybird realizes a life long dream. Up to this point all the critical infrastructure of the storyline carried itself on it’s own weight. It was a seemingly lighthearted walk in a maze of adolescent self-indulgence, delivered with the crispness of an auteur at the top of her game. The closing of the film drifted into being an overt parable. Ironically the earlier sequence, when the class produces Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”, has a recitation of the closing monologue. Prospero breaks character and asked the audience to free him with applause. The reading comically contrasts the a ham-handed, high school reading, with the Bard’s magical words. It works because it doesn’t work. The inverse might be true for our heroine at the finish line. What is shown is the logical extension of the life’s lesson, and yet it “breaks character” with the rest of the film. A better choice might have been to borrow from the final scene in “American Graffiti.” Richard Dreyfuss looks out from the airplane and sees what he’s been chasing all along… the beautiful blond woman in the T-Bird Convertible. They both go their separate ways… but we know that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We are blessed in this film to have Ladybird as the protagonist. She would look out on Sacramento with a broader view and understand the limits of beautiful people and pretty cars. It’s a girl thing.