Lady Bird

(USA 2017)

“You should just go to City College. You know, with your work ethic, just go to City College and then to jail and then back to City College. And then maybe you’d learn to pull yourself up and not expect everybody to do everything.”

— Marion McPherson

“Lady Bird always says that she lives in on the wrong side of the tracks, but I always thought that that was like a metaphor, but there are actual train tracks.”

— Danny

“You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life.”

— Kyle

Lady Bird is not Greta Gerwig’s first time directing; she codirected an earlier film, Nights and Weekends, in 2008. I never heard of that one. However, Lady Bird is her first solo gig, as well as her first hit. I wanted to catch it at the Chicago International Film Festival, but it was impossible to get tickets.

I’ve now seen it in its commercial release. Saoirse Ronan is Christine McPherson, an angsty, unpopular, and rather nerdy but self-assured Catholic high school senior who’s christened herself “Lady Bird.” She lives in a modest home literally “on the wrong side of the tracks” with her parents, her underachiever older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) who graduated from a “good” university but still works as a cashier in a grocery store, and his wife (Marielle Scott).

Christine wants a bigger life than the one she has in Sacramento, and she plans to get it by going away to college. Her perpetually crabby mother (Laurie Metcalf) is not exactly supportive, and her disposition gets worse when her father (Tracy Letts) loses his job.

Set in 2002, Lady Bird is a string of funny and touching episodes about growing up in a lower middle class Catholic home: sex, fitting in, rebellion, and of course Catholicism. I laughed out loud, and did so a lot. Gerwig wrote and directed it, and it’s a solid film even it rings a little familiar. She’s more observant of her characters’ behavior than creating some big dramatic experience. Lady Bird is structured like a lot of teen comedies I’ve seen before, but the acting is good enough to elevate it to a higher level and make it a bit more interesting. More adult, too.

As some friends have pointed out, the main character — Christine — is a refreshing break from the Hollywood archetype of a teenage girl we’ve all seen for more than 30 years now: she’s not a mean girl, a witch, or a slut. This is true, and a big plus here. Still, as much as I enjoyed Lady Bird, I don’t get the awards buzz over it.

With Danny O’Neill, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, John Karna, Jake McDorman, Bayne Gibby, Laura Marano, Fr. Paul Keller, Myra Turley, Bob Stephenson, Joan Patricia O’Neill, Carla Valentine, Roman Arabia

Production: Scott Rudin Productions, Entertainment 360, IAC Films

Distribution: A24 (USA), Elevation Pictures (Canada), United International Pictures (UIP) (international), Universal Pictures International (UPI) (international)

94 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) B

20th Century Women

(USA 2016)

“We are at a turning point in our history.”

—President Jimmy Carter

I was a little kid in the Seventies, but I have many indelibly vivid memories of the decade: huge cars, gas lines, expensive meat, hijacked planes, Sanka and Sweet’N Low, smoking everywhere, hard rock, punk rock, disco, macrame, spider plants, the Bicentennial, Sky Lab, Victoriana (we had Mucha posters in our mustard-colored kitchen), that strange Holly Hobby aesthetic. It seems like it all changed immediately when Reagan took office in 1981.

20th Century Women captures a slice of American life on that unique, unremembered and largely disowned cusp. Set as a flashback to 1979 with voiceovers that repeatedly remind us that we’re looking backward, the film is a rather remarkable time capsule. The story is simple: Dorothea (Annette Bening) is my grandparents’ age (born in 1924). She had her only son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), late in life—i.e., over age 40. She’s been divorecd for a few years, which was fine until Jamie hit puberty. Now, she needs help understanding him. She enlists his two closest allies—Julie (Elle Fanning), whose pants he wants to get into, and Abbie (Greta Gerwig), a postpunk fuckup—to help her figure him out.

Loosely based on actual events from director and writer Mike Mills’s childhood, 20th Century Women is fun to watch. Growing up in a house of females myself, I relate to a lot of his experiences. I loved all the Talking Heads, too. Oh!—and Siouxsie and the Banshees! That said, this film borders on overbearing with its nostalgia. It could’ve been so much better—the material and the talent are both there, but Mills goes for easy returns that don’t pay off. The story falls flat. Perhaps a quote from Bening in an earlier film, the superior and far more interesting Running with Scissors, succinctly sums up my problem here: “It’s shit, Fern. It’s sentimental. It’s emotionally dishonest. It implodes into nothingness.”

I wasn’t bored, and I didn’t hate 20th Century Women. But I’m never going to see this movie again. Too bad, because the acting is great. It’s a misfire due to its execution. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

Also starring Billy Crudup, Vitaly Andrew LeBeau, Curran Walters, Toni Christopher, Jimmy Carter (public domain footage)

Produced by Annapurna Pictures, Archer Gray, and Modern People

Distributed by A24

119 minutes
Rated R

(Landmark Century) C


(USA 2016)

For someone whose best-known films have words like “welcome” and “happiness” in their titles, Todd Solondz doesn’t come across as a particularly cheery guy. His stories are never sentimental or uplifting. His characters are a motley crew of hopeless geeks, unattractive lurps, and outright assholes. He exposes the worst of humanity—pettiness, cruelty, disappointment, indifference—and makes a deranged joke out of it. To some (like me), his bleak, misanthropic perspective is wildly amusing, refreshing, and compelling. Those who dig his twisted brand of cynicism should relish Wiener-Dog, his first film in five years.

Wiener-Dog follows the life of a dachshund as she passes through a succession of masters in four vignettes: Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), a child cancer survivor; Dawn (Greta Gerwig), a flummoxed vet assistant who runs into a former classmate, Brandon (Kieran Culkin), at a convenience store; Schmertz (Danny DeVito), a film writing professor on the verge of a meltdown over a screenplay he can’t get his agent to read; and a dying old sourpuss (Ellen Burstyn) whose cracky granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet), pays her an unexpected visit.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

Side note: the aforementioned Dawn is Dawn Wiener—whose classmates’ mean nickname for her provides the title here—from Welcome to the Dollhouse. I was apprehensive about the idea of resurrecting her and Brandon, but it works on its own without coming off as a desperate attempt at piggybacking a successful past project or playing on nostalgia.

Wiener-Dog is all Solondz, and he’s focused on mortality: sickness and death color each sketch. He starts at childhood and moves through adulthood, getting progressively glum as he leads us to a grave of sorts. Even Weiner-Dog’s name, which changes with each master, hints at where this is all going: Wiener-Dog, Doodie (as in poop), and Cancer—if DeVito’s character named her, I missed it. With just a few exceptions, everyone is terrible. This film is loaded with wonderfully sad, absurd dialogue. Remi’s father (Tracy Lett) explains the importance of breaking a dog’s will, ending the discussion on a bizarre contradictory note. In a hilarious philosophical colloquy, Remi’s mother (Julia Delphy) explains why Wiener-Dog needs to be spayed, inadvertently bringing him to the conclusion that “death is a good thing.” Brandon tells his brother (Connor Long), who has Down’s Syndrome, that their father just died from drinking, even though he said he quit a long time ago. An admissions committee interviews an applicant (Devin Druid) about why he wants to go to film school, and he can’t answer a single question. A school administrator (Sharon Washington) confronts DeVito about his negativity. Zoe explains how rare the ostrich egg she just gave her grandmother is while her grandmother’s unimpressed nurse, Yvette (Marcella Lowery), takes it away to dispose of it. In a dream sequence, Ellen Burstyn’s character has a weird conversation with multiple alternate versions of herself (Melo Ludwig) that chose to be nicer during life.

And then there’s the ending—abrupt and jarring, I literally jumped in my seat and sat there frozen for a few moments. True to form, Solondz makes it clear that no one is important in life’s grand scheme.

Solondz called Wiener-Dog one of his “sunnier” films, and it actually is. To expect a schlocky tale highlighting the joy a pet brings is stupid considering the man behind it. Nonetheless, Solondz gets as sweet as I’ve ever seen him, especially with Dawn and Brandon. The scene where Zoe confides to her grandmother that she suspects her boyfriend, Fantasy (Michael Shaw), is running around behind her back is also touching. The “intermission” is dumb but cute, and the songs are fun. Wiener-Dog has a good life unlike those around her—she isn’t mistreated, and she achieves something none of the other characters do: immortality.

Screening followed by a live Q and A with Todd Solondz.

93 minutes
Rated R

(Music Box) B+