Film review: LADYBIRD, by Nick Gardener from ‘Built For Speed’

As an actress Great Gerwig has defined screwball quirkiness in a series of wryly amusing, at times poignant roles in films from directors such as partner Noah Baumbach. Now she takes the reins as both writer and director in the yes, very quirky but charming and often touching teen dramedy Ladybird.

Like a younger incarnation of the director, Saoirse Ronin stars as the title character, a droll, intellectually gifted but wayward teen struggling with high school romantic misadventures and a well-meaning but hyper-judgemental mother (Laurie Metcalf).

Desperate to escape the blandness of her Sacramento catholic schoolgirl existence, Christine, or as she likes to be known, Ladybird dreams of flitting off to an east coast college where she can imbibe what she envisions will be a more enlightened culture. In the meantime she has to cope with her mother’s constant criticism of her choices and her teen romantic traumas with the likes of the pretentious Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).

Mixing comedy and drama in a style reminiscent of Noah Baumbach and employing a low budget aesthetic that at times recalls Napoleons Dynamite, Gerwig has made this is very typical piece of American indie-style filmmaking.

Gerwig’s insightful script honestly captures a smart teen’s exuberant hope and snarky cynicism, something that wouldn’t have been as fresh and compelling if it wasn’t for Ronin’s note-perfect performance. As Ladybird’s tightly wound mother Laurie Metcalfe is both infuriating and deeply moving as she struggles to connect with a daughter she doesn’t fully understand. Tracy Letts is also a warm if underused presence as Ladybird’s soft-hearted dad.

The film occasionally slips into overly familiar quirkiness with stereotyped oddballs such as her brother (Jordan Rodrigues) staring blankly at the camera or her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) playing it like she’s in a John Waters movie but it never loses its appeal. Some audience members were shrieking with laughter at its screwball vision of teen life while others had only a faint smile but it would be very difficult to dislike this movie.

The film feels like it might be heading into Mean Girls territory at one stage as a confused ladybird tries to ingratiate herself to the school’s alpha queen clique although that story thread doesn’t completely evolve.

Ladybird has its flaws and is a little familiar in places but Gerwig’s clever, perceptive writing and appropriately low-key direction and Ronin’s wonderful performance give the film an ineffable charm.

Nick’s rating: ****

Genre: Comedy/ drama/ teen movie.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Greta Gerwig.

Release date: 15th Feb 2018.

Running time: 93 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.

Film review: MAGGIE’S PLAN, from ‘Built For Speed’

Somewhere between endearingly quirky and irritatingly pretentious writer director Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan is the latest in what could be termed the alternative rom-com genre, a filmmaking style typified by the works of Noah Baumbach. It’s also part of that growing cinematic sub-genre, the Greta Gerwig film, in which Gerwig plays the lovably ditzy but still capable and philosophical young woman trying to negotiate romance and New York bohemia. Needless to say those who love Gerwig’s shtick will embrace this film while those who recoil at her kooky characters will be grinding their teeth throughout.

In this film Gerwig plays Maggie, a 30-something woman who decides she needs to have a baby but is unwilling to commit to a relationship and instead seeks a semen donation for artificial insemination. In the midst of this she encounters John (Ethan Hawke), a new lecturer in something called crypto-ficto anthropology at the university where she works. Falling for John, who is unhappily married to a severe Euro-intellectual ice queen Georgette (Julianne Moore), Maggie soon finds herself in the middle of a strange love triangle. As this odd situation developes Maggie, who has always organised people’s lives, hatches a strange plan which she thinks will resolve the situation for everyone.

Like recent Cameron Crowe films, Maggie’s Plan struggles to find a clear and satisfying tone as it drifts from relationship drama to quirky comedy to satire of bourgeois intellectual manners. It seems Miller was so enamoured of a particular type of young hip academic that she created the story simply to enter their world. Consequently, the plot lacks momentum and dramatic punch. The same could be said of some films by Woody Allen, a director whose work this film at times recalls, although Woody is able to explore psychology and characters quirks in a more insightful and funny way.

That’s not to say Maggie’s Plan fails as a comedy or drama. There are some funny moments particularly when Maggie’s acerbic fiend Tony (Bill Hader) is on screen. Also, the film provides convincing insights into the difficulties of relationships and parenthood. Added to that, the film makes effective use of music – particularly Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark – as an emotional release for the characters and a connection to their fading youth as Gen X-ers.

As Maggie, Greta Gerwig is mostly the same kooky, slightly befuddled character she seems to play in every film. Consequently, it feels odd when the film also tries to claim that she is some sort of disciplined control freak. Regardless, Gerwig still has that enjoyably idiosyncratic way of delivering lines that suggests someone with a slightly askew take on reality.   Ethan Hawke, is disappointing here, after his terrific performances in the Richard Linklater Before Midnight series, he’s bland and doesn’t convince as someone whom two highly intelligent women would desperately pursue. With here ‘Natasha from Rocky and Bullwinkle’ accent Julianne Moore is something of a caricature as the contemptuous academic Georgette but Moore is such a fine actor that she is able to make this oddball convincing. Maya Rudolph makes the most of an underwritten role as Maggie’s best friend.

Aussie audiences and Vikings fans will be pleased to know Travis Fimmel makes an appearance in this film even though he plays an awkward creepy guy who has pined for Maggie for years.

For those who can’t stand the cast or quirky hipster rom-coms this film will be a chore but for most audiences it will provide just enough enjoyable moments to make it worthwhile.

Nick’s rating: ***.

Genre: Drama/ romantic comedy.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Rebecca Miller.

Release date: 7th July 2016.

Running time: 98 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast.


Film review: FRANCES HA, from Built For Speed

Imagine Bridget Jones’s Diary and Zooey Deschanel’s TV show New Girl filtered through the mind of Woody Allen and you would have ultra-quirky, 20-something comedy Frances Ha.

Greta Gerwig plays the ditzy, flaky title character, a 27-year-old woman who floats through her quasi-hipster life in New York City hoping to make it as a professional dancer. With almost no money or regular employment, the only stable aspect of her life is her friendship with acerbic housemate Sophie (Mickey Sumner).  When Sophie’s relationship with an annoying yuppie named Patch (Patrick Heusinger) causes her and Frances to drift apart, Frances’ life spirals further into disarray.

Frances Ha is cute and amiable but despite numerous promising comic set-ups, it’s just not very funny. Co-writers Gerwig and Noah Baumbach (who also directed) provide a smattering of laughs vai France’s unconventional behaviour and some reasonably astute observations about the quirks and pretensions of today’s self-absorbed 20-somethings but there’s little genuine wit.

The film doesn’t entirely work as drama either as it’s just too fluffy to hit the audience on an emotional level.  Frances’ predicament almost takes a serious turn as her relationships and aspirations begin to unravel but the film treats these issues in superficial manner often undercutting the drama with quirkiness. This film’s lack of dramatic spark is particularly disappointing given Baumbach’s searing writing in Greenberg which featured a wonderfully cynical Ben Stiller as the deeply troubled title character.

Aesthetically, Frances Ha mixes the black and white cinematography, New York locations and free-flowing dinner party conversations of Woody Allen’s Manhattan with a raw, naturalistic style that some have compared to the films of the French new wave directors such as Francois Truffaut but more closely resembles Kevin Smith’s Clerks.  Simply referencing other films is not enough, however, as Frances Ha has neither Manhattan’s insightful wit nor Clerks (let alone the Truffaut’s) ballsy, zeitgeist-defining attitude.

As Frances, Gerwig, who is rarely off-screen, delivers an uneven performance that’s shifts back and forth from natural and endearing to forced and irritating.  This makes it hard to get a fix on Frances and by the film’s end it’s still not clear exactly who she is or if we should care about her. Perhaps young women will identify with and find something profound and moving in Frances’ struggles but to this reviewer, Frances just seemed to be a vague but likeable klutz.   Her group of friends, though, particularly the males, were not likeable as they tended to be annoyingly smug and not in an ironically funny way.  Sure, there are many people like this in real life but watching a gaggle of them on screen becomes nauseating.

For all its pitfalls Frances Ha still has an appealing energy due in no small part to its bouncy and surprisingly retro soundtrack which features David Bowie, T-Rex and Hot Chocolate.

Frances Ha is so close to being a clever and perceptive Woody Allen-esque comedy/ drama that it’s infuriating to see it just fall short.

Nick’s rating: Two and a half stars.

Classification: MA 15+.

Director(s): Noah Baumbach.

Release date: 15th Aug 2013

Running time: 86 mins.