Logan (2017)

Directed by: James Mangold

Written by: Mangold, Frank Scott and Michael Green

Logan_2017_posterPerhaps its kind of silly, but for a while now I’ve judged superhero movies by a “it’s not like other superhero movies” standard. At the time of its release I was mildly tempted to see Logan, but was advised by a viewer with a similar mindset to my own that it was in fact “like other superhero movies.” 

This year, however, I went through a superhero phase. Excited by the releases of Endgame (because I got caught up in the hype), and Dark Phoenix (because I’ve always been loosely aware of/compelled by Jean Grey’s storyline) I decided to finally get into Marvel Cinematic Universe (M.C.U.) and X-Men movies. While I did end up seeing Endgame and Dark Phoenix , I now feel that the true light at the end of my movie watching journey was Logan. 

Despite being creations of the Marvel comic book brand, when it comes to movies, the X-Men and Marvel are two different franchises (that may soon change with Disney’s recent aquisition of Fox). Throughout their histories, both MCU and X-Men filmmakers have struggled to produce films that can be pitched to people who are not reasonably committed superhero fans. These struggles, however, have taken markedly different forms. M.C.U. films are consistently hard to knock (I know some people describe them as “fun”), but lack a boldness that could make them interesting to film-buff-type-viewers. X-Men films, meanwhile lack the M.C.U.’s consistency in their quality and character. They tend to have more subtly (better) written dialogue, and have compelling moral/philosophy dilemmas at the hearts of their stories.  Nonetheless, factors ranging from having too many underdeveloped characters, to lacking humor, to being too visually dreary cause the preliminarily smarter X-Men films to end up less entertaining than their M.C.U. counterparts.

Perhaps a shared quality of the M.C.U and X-Men serieses is that they both contain a prolific amount of movies, and operate on the assumption that fans will commit to seeing most or all of them. This can be frustrating for movie fans, eager to see the masterpieces, but not necessarily the entire catalogues of these film universes. 

In the case of M.C.U. films, the benefit fans get from seeing most/all of the movies is that it allows them to pick up on nuanced differences between superficially similar characters, when those characters are brought together in films like Infinity War and End Game. Movies that at first glance appear to be slugfest can come to be seen as engaging depictions of Robert Downey Jr, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, etc-portrayed figures. 

 Logan, by contrast, lacks even the vapid layer of fun of the M.C.U.’s slugfests: it is a film that, had I viewed it out of context, I think I would have found boring: its two hours and seventeen minutes long despite having few characters and a relatively simple plot. However, unlike M.C.U. films, Logan can be hailed as an interesting (mostly) stand-alone work, and not simply a satisfying conclusion to a years-long content parade. I say “mostly” because its not a good movie to go into, if you don’t know who “Logan” is. 

So what is the context you need to know to appreciate Logan? Firstly, you need to know its protagonist is James “Logan” Howlett aka Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). I make this, perhaps obvious, statement because while  visibility wise, Wolverine (who I mistakenly referred to as “X-Man” as a child), is up there with A-List superheroes like Superman, Batman and Spiderman, the specifics of his identity aren’t as culturally embedded. Wolverine’s superpowers include the ability to rapidly recover from nearly all injuries, a seeming inability to age (but note the gray in his bear in this film), and claws that can burst from his hands, that early in his career were coated with a powerful metal known as adamantium. Furthermore, in addition to having a “solo career,” Wolverine is a key member of a superhero team known as the X-Men, who are lead by the telepathic Professor X (Patrick Stewart). All X-Men are mutants, and while technically this means they are humans with (highly-fictionalized) genetic mutations, within the logic of the X-Men universe, being any sort of “mutant” renders one part of the same, socially marginalized human subspecies.  

Aside from the above, there are small details from the past X-Men films that can enrich one’s Logan experience. The film echoes 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine by having its protagonist be taken in by a farm family;2000’s The X-Men by having Wolverine serve as a mentor figure for a girl (teenage, new-superhero Rogue in X-Men and the even younger Laura in Logan); and these and other films that develop the pain associated with Wolverine’s immortality.

 While slow and not completely devoid of the specifics of superhero mythos, Logan is fundamentally a film that engages viewers via its themes. One such theme is mortality/age.  The film is set in 2029, a significant choice since the first X-Men prequel film (First Class (2011)) is set in 1962, and the first prequel film starring  Wolverine’s “peer” X-Men is set in 1982. In short by 2029 one can assume that. at very least, there would be no young X-Men left in the world save for the ageless Logan (it is in fact implied that all the other notable mutants are dead, but noticing this detail is not necessary to appreciate the film’s sombre mood).

Facing the pain of his immortality is nothing new for Wolverine. In 2013’s The The_Wolverine_posterUS.jpgWolverine for instance, he is haunted by visions of a dead companion. But despite dealing with similar themes, Logan is far more heart-wrenching than its predecessor. There are two reasons for this. One, is that The Wolverine’s main- plot, and the source of Logan’s pain are only loosely connected. The other, is that in The Wolverine Logan mourns a single, and iconic death, confining that film’s themes to the world of comic books. Logan, by contrast, generalizes its protagonist’s suffering, giving viewers far more time to channel Wolverine’s anguish. 

While time is an important theme in Logan it is also one the X-Men series has struggled with. The prequel X-Men  films (First Class, Days of Futures Past, Apocalyps and Dark Phoenix) take place over a forty year period, yet its stars don’t appear to age at all. The best defence against such criticisms is to say that they don’t matter: that if consistency gets in the way of a sequel’s concept (such as wanting to set a story in a given decade), consistency can afford to be compromised.

Unlike previous X-Men films, however, Logan leans in to the idea that it might not be entirely consistent with the other X-Men films. Adding a whiff of contrast to his film’s  (crisp but) dusty color scheme,  Logan discovers an X-Men comic book in the possession of his young ward Laura (Dafne Keen), lecturing her that the content of these comics is fictional. This scene announces that it’s ok to make a film that is closely inspired by, but not necessarily a pure sequel to its predecessors. Beyond that the line also hints at the film’s ambitions: making a superhero film (rooted in absurdly simple pseudo-genetics) that’s also realistic. Skeptical viewers might dismiss this scene as a cheap gag, awkwardly placed in an unfunny movie. I, however, see it as a fitting nod to and development upon a series that has always maintained a healthy distance from its source materials. In comic books Wolverine wears a an iconic yellow suit. X-Men filmmakers have avoided this approach seeing it as too cartoonish. Director James Manigold explained he didn’t see having a superhero cosume as consistent with Wolverine’s non-egotistical personality. Manigold’s Wolverine is literally fictional, but also far more real than his suited-up, comic-book counterpart. Manigold thus made a film about separating “the man and the legend,” even though legends are his medium.  

I began this piece by discussing the idea of “not being like other superhero movies.” So far we have established that Logan is about a (sort of) elderly superhero, and it is about a figure who both does and doesn’t live in a world where superheroes are real. This second idea also speaks to a broader quality of Logan: that what you see both is and isn’t what you think it is. When I was told that Logan is “like other superhero movies” a big reason for that is that it is filled with violence. The character of this violence, however, is unique. In a movie like The Avengers, audiences are supposed to take violence as straightforward entertainment. Logan’s violence, however, is designed to disturb; particularly in one slow motion scene when we watch Logan stick his claws straight-through his enemies heads. Viewers watching this scene are not supposed to think “wow Logan is so strong.” Rather, they are enticed to wonder how Logan endures such a Hobbesian existence.

Another common trait of superhero movies is moralism: eg an egotistical character learns to be selfish. In Logan this trope is taken on through his relationship with Laura. But while the Logan-Laura plot is set up in such a way that viewers are led to think “Logan better learn to be a good dad for his abandoned child,” the relationship between Logan and Laura is rendered unique by the fact that Logan is not in fact the kind of man who would have and then recklessly abandon a child, and his struggles and triumphs in relating to Laura are rooted in something far more complex than simple immaturity.

So is Logan “like other superhero movies?” I would say the answer is no, but that’s also something one might not appreciate if one does not know what it means to be “like other superhero movies” in the first place. Viewers strictly averse to action-based stories might easily grow impatient with Logan. Those more accustomed to superhero works and those more patient with action, however, can expect quite the cinematic experience from Jackman’s final X-Men series performance. When looking at the film’s poster they will not see Logan’s BATTLE scars, but his battle SCARS.  Logan’s troubled lead and his charismatic travel companions, give the film incredible emotional weight. Regardless of how aware you were of that superhero in the yellow suit before you saw Logan, there’s a strong chance that once you do see it, it is the version of the hero who acts without a suit you will come to remember.

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The Lion King (2019)

Directed by: Jon Favreau

Written by: Jeff Nathanson

Disney_The_Lion_King_20192019’s The Lion King is a notable film. The problem is that the reason it is notable (its hyper-realistic, animated rendition of a scenic society of Savannah animals), is one most viewers will have internalized and taken for granted long before they even enter the theatre. In short, watching 2019’s The Lion King is a chance to enjoy stunning animation coupled with a good story and great songs. It’s a good experience, but, save for film-tech-buffs who might appreciate Jon Favreau’s “documentary inspired” camera work, it’s also one that falls well short of what one would hope for. 

When this Lion King was first announced emphasis was put on its cast: a cast markedly more-black than used in the original film. The announcement was a sign that Disney was responding to social concerns of the day, making sure that cinema is not a white-dominated field, especially not when stories are set in regions such as Africa. Alas, unlike in the recent Aladdin remake, where Will Smith got to shine as the genie, despite being largely the same as Robin Williams’ 1992 character, The Lion King’s new voice actors were truly confined by their scripts. Ironically, the only actor who seemed to get to do anything usefully innovative with his role was Seth Rogen (Pumbaa), who updated Ernie Sabella’s adorkable take on the character, with his fourth-wall breaking, cool-dork persona. 

Outside of Rogen, only one actor voiced his character in a way that meaningfully altered the approach taken in the original: Chiewetel Ejiofor, the voice of Scar. In the original Lion King, Scar is charmingly and unsatiably sinister: cartoonish and no-nonsense at once. Ejiofor, despite having many of Scar’s original lines, toned the character down. In theory, Ejiofor’s is an interesting interpretation; it makes Scar’s deception more believable and perhaps even grants the character a sliver of moral depth. In context, however, Ejiofor’s was a weird choice. The Lion King has a fairly simple script, so while Ejiofor’s version of Scar might be admirably nuanced, it is Irons’ charisma rather than Ejiofor’s delicateness that the text necessitates. 

The remake’s Scar problem, reminds me of what I wrote in my recent review of The Lion King. I asked some questions in that review, hoping that the remake might address them. To my surprise the remake did address those questions, but it did so merely for the sake of answering them: not as part of a broader path to enrich the story.

For instance, in the original film it is not explicitly stated why there is starvation under Scar’s reign: all we need to know is that Scar is bad and thus his rule is bad. In the remake, by contrast, it is made plain that starvation happens because Scar allows his hyena troops to hunt unsustainably. 

I previously argued that if the remake explained the logic behind Scar’s famine, it could enrich The Lion King story in one of two ways. One was that it could add depth to the story underlying Scar’s yearning for political power. The remake does not take this path. The other path the film could have taken was substantiating on the original film’s message about “the circle of life.” This is a path the remake sort-of embarks on. We are explicitly told that Mufasa (James Earle Jones, again) respects the animals he hunts and acknowledges the delicate balance he shares with them, an approach that is explicitly ditched when Scar takes power. This theme is given renewed attention later in the film in what I believe is the remake’s most compelling addition; a bit in which an impala (Phil LaMarr) tells Simba (Donald Glover) he cannot shake his fear of him, despite Simba’s having (temporarily (?)) dropped mammals from his diet.

 For better or for worse, however, this theme is not taken further. And perhaps that’s for the best. On the one hand as a lion in a “realistic” movie about the circle of life, Simba’s return to carnivorism is inevitable. On the one hand, it would be heartbreaking (especially for kid viewers) if the film actually went so far as to show that the adorable impala’s anxieties were valid. One approach the film could have taken to (somewhat) evade this problem would be having Simba discover that Timon (Billy Eichner) and Pumbaa were mere spirits/illusions who taught him a lesson when he needed one, but can not accompany him forever. Alas, such experimentalism was clearly not what Disney was going for in the case of this remake.

Another interesting change the remake makes is in its depiction of the hyenas. While the original Lion King stars three goofy hyenas as Scar’s hapless minions, the remake, cuts that number down to two (Keegan-Michael Key and Eric Andre) while rebranding another Hyena, “Shenzi” (Florenze Ksumba)  as the group’s smart, sinister leader. Upon hearing Shenzi’s voice, I wondered if this move was a nod to the character of Zira, the villainess from The Lion King 2. Alas, new-Shenzi doesn’t end up serving much more purpose in the script, than does the revelation about her tendency to overhunting. If anything, the rewriting of the hyenas simply comes at the expense of original film’s best line moment:

Banzai (hyena): Yeah, Be prepared. Yeah… we’ll be prepared, heh. …For 

what?

Scar: For the death of the king.

Banzai: What is he, sick?

Scar: No, fool – we’re going to kill him. Simba too.

Shenzi: Great idea! Who needs a king?

Shenzi and Banzai: (singing) No king! No king! La-la-la-la-la!

Scar: Idiots! There will be a king!

Banzai: Hey, but you said, uh…

Scar: I will be king! …Stick with me (triumphant, toothy grin), and you’ll never go hungry again

 

Much like Ejiofor’s subtle Scar, Kasumba’s savvy Shenzi is not a bad characterization, but its not a useful one either. Ironically, it shows that darker/realistic filmmaking is not neccessarily deeper than cartoonish filmmaking. In the original Lion King there’s the odd moment where viewers are left to wonder whether the hyenas have more moral authority than Scar and Mufasa alike. In the remake that problem is safely put to rest. Shenzi does not get to me a more fleshed-out Zira, but a boring-Bellatrix LeStrange.

 

Let’s be clear, while I think its right to ask why The Lion King’s (2019) creators thought it was fit to change next to nothing from their source material, changing The Lion King is nonetheless a very difficult task. For one, the film is arguably Disney’s masterpiece: with it, a studio known primarily for adapting fairy tales, for once, created a fairy tale that was really their own. Secondly, while Disney has tried to add tinges of progressivism to its remakes, with The Lion King that’s no easy task since the film is rooted in a degree of lion realism (ie prides congregating around one male who kills all offspring that aren’t his own). While part of me wanted to see this film reach a conclusion where Nala becomes Queen, and Simba opts out of the royalist lifestyle to live in Timon and Pumbaa’s multi-species community, I also recognize the narrative of weight that comes from having a society where tradition, charisma and will (and not mere numbers (lionesses vastly outnumbering Simba/Scar)) are the sources of political power.

A third reason why adapting a film like The Lion King is hard, is that its creators knew whatever they produced would be under the microscope. As much as I liked my idea about Timon and Pumbaa being a hallucination, I would be terrified to pull that one off. The icing on the cake of Ejiofor’s disappointing approach on Scar is that he doesn’t get to sing Scar’s sinister number “Be Prepared” (it’s sort of in there, you’ll see what I mean if you see it). This cut was known before the movie was released, and I think it’s worth noting how the proposed move was discussed

 

Anyone who watched Jon Favreau’s remake of The Jungle Book shouldn’t be too surprised, as many songs were cut from that original movie as well; however, cutting “Be Prepared” does feel a bit blasphemous, especially to fans of the original. Cutting “Be Prepared” to keep the film darker, more serious, and graver seems like a poor decision, as it is still meant to be a family movie, and adults (who were kids when the first one came out) would likely prefer to see the song performed, as it works to further characterize Scar.

— Josh Lezmi, Showbiz Cheatsheets

In the above passage Josh Lezmi theorizes that Favreau (or screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, etc) cut the song in order to have a more serious tone. Presuming Favreau, etc was ever allowed to have much of a creative thought process, however, this framing doesn’t make sense. If Favreau wanted to make a darker Lion King he wouldn’t have “cut” “Be Prepared,” but rather have made a film where “Be Prepared” and other sings wouldn’t fit in in the first place. Unfortunately, as op-eds like Lezmi’s show, Lion King fans wanted a film that did not mess too much with what they liked about the original. As such, the creative team gave viewers what they wanted. And only then did viewers realize that getting too much of what you want isn’t always a good thing.

So how could a better Lion King have been made? Perhaps the filmmakers could have taken the Maleficent route (admittedly I haven’t seen that one) and told the story from Scar’s perspective. That way, they would not have had to change details, they could simply have added them, all the while creating a product with a fresh feel. Perhaps such a film could address the mystery of why Scar does not kill Simba as a cub, but instead orders his hapless minions to do it. 

A more far fetched approach could have been making a version of The Lion King more closely inspired by Hamlet than the original (yes that was a joke). Perhaps someday in the future, Disney’s current remake era is something historians will talk about. I’d love to see a documentary exposing the behind-the-scenes conversatons. Was there vociferous debate about how much the original script should have been changed? Did the film’s creators think their work was more different from its source than we are giving them credit for? It’s a possibility I’m open to, and for now, I can at least be grateful that this film introduced an elephant shrew (Josh McRary) to “Hakuna Mata” (and the aforementioned impala).

Roma (2018)

Written and Directed by: Alfonso Cuarón 

Roma_theatrical_posterIf you’re not Mexican  and you didn’t do your research you’ll probably not know what “Roma” refers to. After leaving a showing of Alfonso Cuarón’s latest release, I still wasn’t sure. I now know that it refers to the Mexico City neighborhood (Colonia Roma) where the film is primarily set.

It’s an appropriate title for the film. It should be acknowledged the film is particularly focused on one person, Cleo the nanny (Yalitza Aparicio), and is not a story of its titular neighborhood. Nonetheless, the film’s defining trait is its realism, thus making its location as noteworthy a detail as any.

Roma opens with an extended montage of water sloshing over a driveway. We find out the water is coming from Cleo’s mop. Though not as agonizingly long as, for instance, the pie scene in A Ghost Story, this scene leaves us well acquainted with the facts that Roma a) is going to be a film about a domestic worker b) this worker lives a somewhat tedious existence and c) the driveway is going to become a character of sorts in the film. From there Roma takes its time, showing scenes of Cleo’s various tasks. For a while it gives off the impression that it’s going to be a film where little happens.

Roma does not end up as a film where little happens. We eventually see Cleo’s life while she is not working, a slight change to the film’s pace. We are also gradually introduced to Cleo’s employer Sofía (Marina de Tavira) as a secondary character. Sofía’s power sometimes leads to her serving as the film’s antagonist, but since Cleo is the film’s centre, and the film is, again, uncompromising in its realism, this antagonism is spaced out and never overdone.

By the film’s end a number of major dramas have taken place. None of these serve as a a traditional climax, however. In several cases, these dramas serve just as much an aesthetic purpose as they do a dramatic one: adding would-be color to Cuarón’s black and white shots.

Roma is plainly a film that explores class dynamics, and some would say it does so inadequately, with Richard Brody arguing it contributes to the “quiet, dignified worker” trope. The extent to which one agrees with Brody’s critique depends, of course, on how much one believes in blaming individual film’s for systemic problems, and how well one believes Cuarón did in translating the personality of his own nanny childhood Libo, who Cleo is closely based on. One of the interesting tensions in the film in this regard is that while Cuarón is clearly committed to being critical of his parents, he nonetheless developed his intimate relationship with Libo through her role as a domestic worker; a factor which may have limited his ability to imagine her as too unhappy with her lot in life.

That all said, even if Brody may have a point in saying the film leaves a lot said about Cleo’s individual class consciousness, I think on a bigger level the film is still politically important. I suspect many Americans have a homogenized view of “Mexicans” and citizens of the global south in general. Roma challenges this perception by highlighting the similarities between Mexican and American society. It presents a stark contrast between a white upper class and racialized working class (an important distinction to recall in an era when Latin America is seeing leaders like Jair Bolsonaro and Sebastián Piñera come to power) .

And again with Roma, it all comes back to realism, even if it’s not a complete realism: no realism is. Cleo is one person in a vast society: on some days she feels the weight of the personal more than the political and vice versa. Roma is a story of one person, but it treats that one person like an essential puzzle piece: she alone doesn’t solve the jigsaw, but she sets you up to understand where numerous other pieces are laid.

 

One final thought:

 

Roma of course also bears the baggage of being the most culturally significant Netflix movie to date. Some say it lost the best picture Oscar as a punishment for its not spending a traditional amount of time in theatres prior to its release. I can’t help but wonder, however, whether the Netflix thing was a two-way street. Fellow slow indie films like this year’s Leave No Trace and The Rider were never considered serious Oscar contenders. 2014’s Ida, as a black-and-white film, and fellow best-foreign-film winner, is a particularly close analogue to Roma, but despite its success, it didn’t receive a best picture nomination either. Cuarón’s near-success in the best-picture race can, in my opinion, be chalked down to his releasing an art-house film via a populist platform: the Netflix baggage helped him far more than it hurt him. I can only assume that once other films take on this approach, one of them will eventually win best picture. 

Cuarón was luckily uncompromising in pushing for his well-shot, attention-necessitating work, to be given a (limited) theatrical release, despite Netflix’s established business model. I was lucky enough to get to see Roma on the big screen, albeit by booking a ticket a month-in-advance at the one Montréal cinema (Cinéma Moderne) that was showing it. If Netflix releases are indeed the way of the future, I can only hope that future auteurs normalize Cuarón’s approach and push Netflix to embrace the big screen.

 

Before Midnight (2013)

Directed by: Richard Linklater Written by: Linklater, Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy

Before_Midnight_posterThis review of an “older movie” is of the third part of a trilogy. This is a trilogy, in which the three instalments are intentionally filmed many years apart, should really be appreciated as a whole, and as such readers not familiar with the first two films should not continue for the sake of avoiding a key spoiler.

 One of the first films I saw in my transition to identifying as a “film person” was Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise, the story of a young, not-quite-couple exploring Europe and developing a deep sense of connection in a single night together. Thematically, the film could be said to be about the idea of finding “true love.” The “right person” can come at the wrong time, forcing lovers to live in the moment and not worry that their future may not be as perfect as the present.

If one thinks of the trilogy thematically, Before Midnight is its logical conclusion. The first film tells the story of a love that can only last for a moment, while this third film reintroduces the lovers as a married couple of several years. If, however, one thinks of the previous Before films not in terms of their themes, but in terms of their character, the premise of Before Midnight is a bit more surprising. What captured my imagination about Before Sunrise was that it was a largely action-less and even plot-less film. It simply featured two characters, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (July Delpy) having a very long conversation. The conversation was varied and animated, and I left the film with a new understanding of what I could find entertaining. Two years later I saw Before Sunset a film, that aside from being set 9 years later, changes little from Before Sunrise formula. Upon seeing that film I thought “wow, Linklater did it again.”

Who knows if Linklater could have done it yet again? The fact is, when it came to Before Midnight he opted not to. While the film’s middle certainly resembles its prequels, its beginning and end are uniquely focused. Jesse has married Céline despite the fact that they live on different continents, and Jesse was already married with a son. Again, thematically, this was the logical place for this third Before movie to go (perhaps, some might argue, it was the logical place for the second movie to go). The first film is about a neither-mature-nor-immature young couple who know that they can’t be together. The third film re-introduces them in their forties, when they are supposed to be, and largely are, mature, but are caught up in the fallout of one of their rare (arguably) immature decisions.

If cinema is an escape from reality, the first two Before movies were an escape from reality and cinema. It wasn’t like other movies: it could be smart without having to have some sort of important theme. Before Sunrise, for better or for worse robs viewers of that quality. The magically written conversation, of the first film, we’re told, is not some magical quality that Hawke and Delpy’s characters possess, it is a product of their love, a love that becomes very hard to sustain when they actually act on it.

Before Midnight is not without it’s Before moments, be they Delpy’s impression of a “bimbo” or her painful kitten story. The film also ends on a Before-like note, with the protagonist connecting through an acted-romantic interaction. This last scene, however, lacks the vivacity of the playful moments in the earlier films, because of how tied up it is in the movie’s unifying theme. Perhaps this review has come across as negative, but I don’t think it has to be read that way. All I’m saying is that despite sharing qualities of its predecessors Before Midnight is a substantially less magical film. And since it is a story of lovers struggling with the loss of new love’s spark, I suppose that it achieved what it set out to.

Lady Bird (2017)

Written and directed by: Greta Gerwig

In my time watching film with a more critical eye, I’ve slowly developed the habit of Lady_Bird_posterobserving the relationship between film’s and their trailers. Many audiences will go into Lady Bird knowing it is highly acclaimed, and that its protagonist is a bad-girl of sorts who celebrates her 18th birthday by demanding “camel lights, a scratcher, and a playgirl” at her local convenience store. Lady Bird, however is not a simple comedy that entertains audiences through the hair-brained antics of its wild-child protagonist. Instead, the film is ambitious in its realism. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is charismatic and daring, perhaps a teenage (and human) version of Kevin Henkes’ children’s book character Lily, but she is not a rebel without a cause either.

            Lady Bird’s can almost be split into two halves to it. Each half features a best friend (Beanie Feldstein and Odeya Rush) and a boyfriend (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalomet). Rather than having a plot and a subplot or two, the film simply has a main plot coupled with a number of subplots that are unafraid to peter out. For example, we meet Lady Bird’s older brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues). We see some of his quirks and struggles, and are exposed to the underlying tensions in his and Lady Bird’s sibling- relationship, yet he never fully crystallizes into a main character. While certainly not understated, Lady Bird’s plot structure draws on the pacing and emotional weight of everyday drama. In doing so it manages to be emotionally engaging in a way that feels somewhat novel for Hollywood.

            The success of Lady Bird’s realism perhaps can be tied to the screenwriter’s trust in our ability to take its character’s struggles seriously, even as the piece’s stakes are lowered. For instance, we know that Lady Bird struggles with math. The film clarifies that she is not at risk of failing, but rather in B- territory. This revelation does not take away from Lady Bird’s frustrations, it simply colors them. More importantly, the film’s main plot relies on an antagonistic relationship between Lady Bird and her strict, financially-anxious mother (Laurie Metcalf). Lady Bird, however, doesn’t do anything dramatic to get revenge on or sever her relationship with her mother: rather, she explicitly says on multiple occasions that she understands her mother’s thinking, and knows her mother loves her. This subtlety allows a broad range of viewers to identify with Lady Bird, and contrary to what one might assume, it does not make her story feel any less dramatic. Many of us live “boring” lives that inside our own heads are nonetheless compelling dramas. Lady Bird’s success comes from its committed attempt to bring that kind of drama to the big screen.

            Lady Bird has broken Toy Story 2’s record for number of critics’ reviews its received on Rotten Tomatoes without garnering a single negative submission. While it may not be a singularly great movie, it is notable for the lines it sits on: it straddles the fence between realistic and whimsical, between dramatic and understated. Whether its Kyle Scheivle’s performative idealism, Sister Sarah Joan’s (Lois Smith) piousness-with-a-sense-of humour, or Julianne Steffan’s nickname, chances are you will at very least find a character or two compelling in Lady Bird