FILM | The actress's directorial debut at NYFF puts her in Oscar-worthy territory
Are exhibiting love and paying attention the same thing?
This is just one of the many questions posed to the audience in Lady Bird, the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig that premiered at the New York Film Festival. Gerwig, who has previously stared in the films Maggie's Plan (2015) and Lola Versus (2012), among others (many directed by longtime boyfriend and fellow NYFF director Noah Baumbach) had been itching since 2012 to write and direct the film that is now Lady Bird.
Originally a 300-plus page screenplay, Gerwig edited it down to something functional, sharing it with Saoirse Ronan when the two connected at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. The two read through the entire script together. Gerwig admitted within the first few pages she knew Ronan was perfect for the role. Laurie Metcalf, who stars opposite Ronan, later stepped on board after admiring how the script reflected the issues she was having with her own teenager.
Lady Bird is Gerwig's love letter to Sacramento, rooted in her experience growing up in what has been referred to recently as the Midwest of California. It tells the story of a struggling family. Marion McPherson (Metcalf) balances double shifts at a psychiatric hospital after her husband (Tracy Letts) is laid off from work. Their son (Jordan Rodrigues) has a Berkeley degree behind his grocery bagging job at the local super market, and their daughter, Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Ronan) — not her given name but the name she gave herself — wants nothing more than to get out of California and go somewhere where there's culture, like New York, or at least New England. There's certainly nothing exciting to be found in her hometown, nor anyone interesting in the community of her Catholic high school.
The antics of Lady Bird carry us through the story as she marches proudly through her senior year of high school to the beat of a drum only she can hear clearly. She auditions for the drama club, applies for schools in New York against her mother's wishes, and never meets a boundary she doesn't want to push against, and somehow manages to capture our attention and affection equally as we see her and her mother struggle with their changing roles in each other's lives. Ronan and Metcalf play the roles to perfection, warming our hearts as they stubbornly resist admitting how much they truly need and appreciate the other until the emotional conclusion.
Overall, Gerwig manages to make Lady Bird hilarious, thoughtful, and touching, which is far more than one might expect going into yet another coming-of-age story. The film's 2002-2003 setting (a decision Gerwig made for she felt it was the last time you could portray teenagers without the use of cell phones becoming imperative) brings into question what it means for your own personal problems when the world is in a mess. Fifteen years later and the question remains applicable, and there's something so satisfying in Lady Bird reminding us all sadness isn't war and death. Sometimes it's realizing the boy you lost your virginity lied to you, or that your first boyfriend is actually too afraid to reveal his sexuality to his deeply religious parents. Sometimes it's seeing your child be accepted for the same job you're applying for.
The upside to the many sadnesses, Gerwig depicts in order to put our minds at ease, can often be simple. It's impossible not to smile through the emotions when you see Lady Bird and her friend Julie (a sensational Beanie Feldstein) snacking on the communion wafers during study hall, or when Marion and Lady Bird partake in their favorite Sunday activity — touring open houses for homes in neighborhoods they'll never be able to afford. These touching elements are balanced within the comedic in a way most directors (including Baumbach in his latest, also screening at NYFF, The Meyerowitz Stories) fail to tackle.
It's no surprise this film has been getting standing ovations at all of its premieres, and greatly encouraging that Oscar-related buzz has already started circulating. Lady Bird is exactly the kind of American story that people can relate to and need to see in these troubled times, for in the words of Christine's wise head mistress nun, perhaps if we start paying better attention to one another, we'll be able to find a little more love.
Breaking down the bias of comfort films.
With the constant onslaught of complicated news that 2020 has brought, sometimes you just want to be able to shut off your brain, relax, and feel happy.
Enter comfort films. These are the feel-good movies that feel like a warm hug when you finish them, the ones that allow you to escape for a short while. We often turn to these types of films in times of trouble or extreme stress, and when we're not sure what films of this nature we should watch, we turn to the Internet for options.
Rivera's "Glee" character was not just important, she was groundbreaking.
As a young queer girl growing up in the south, I was lucky that my parents weren't homophobes.
My parents believed that people were sometimes born gay, and while they wouldn't "wish that harder life" on their children, they certainly made me and my sister believe that gay people were just as worthy of love as anyone else. I was lucky.
Still, in my relatively sheltered world of Northern Virginia (a rich suburb near Washington D.C.), homophobia wasn't as blatant as hate crimes or shouted slurs, but it was generally accepted that being straight was, simply, better.
In high school, it wasn't uncommon to use "gay" as an insult or for girls to tease each other about being "lez." While many of us, if asked, would have said we were in support of gay marriage and loved The Ellen Show, being gay remained an undesirable affliction.
Even more insidious, I was instilled with the belief—by my church and my peers—that if gay and lesbian people could be straight, they would. But since they were simply incapable of attraction to the opposite sex or fitting into traditional gender roles, we should accept them as they are as an act of mercy. At the time, this kind of pity seemed progressive and noble. Those in my close circle of family and friends weren't openly dismissive or condemning of gay people, but we saw homosexuality as a clear predisposition with no gray areas.
Specifically: Gay men talked with a lilt, giggled femininely, and were interested in things that weren't traditionally "masculine." Meanwhile, gay women dressed like men, had no interest in makeup or other traditionally female interests, and probably had masculine bodies and features. In my mind, before someone came out as gay, they did everything in their power to "try to be straight" but were eventually forced to confront the difficult reality that they felt no attraction at all to the opposite sex. I viewed homosexuality not as a spectrum, but as a black and white biological predisposition that meant you were thoroughly, completely, and pitiably gay.
As a child, when I began to experience stirrings of attraction for other girls, I would reassure myself that not only had I definitely felt attraction for men in the past, but I also liked being pretty. I was a tomboy as a child, sure, but as I got older I recognized that my value was increased in the eyes of society if I tried to be a pretty girl. As it turned out, I even liked putting on clothes that made me feel good, I liked applying makeup, and I liked some traditionally "feminine" things. In my mind, this meant that I couldn't be gay, because gay women didn't like "girl" stuff.
As a teenager, I began to learn more about the difference between gender and sexuality, and the fluidity of both. I began to let myself feel some of the long-suppressed feelings of queer desire I still harbored.
Still, in the back of my mind, the instilled certainty of sexuality as an extremely rigid thing sometimes kept me up at night. What if I was gay? Would I have to change the way I looked? Would I have to give up some of the things I liked? In my mind, being gay meant your sexuality was your whole identity, and everything else about you disappeared beneath the weight of it.
But then, Santana came out as gay on Glee.
GLEE - The Santana 'Coming Out Scene' www.youtube.com
If you didn't watch Glee, than you might not know the importance of Naya Rivera's character to so many queer young women like myself. Santana was beautiful, she was popular, she had dated boys, she was feminine, she was sexy, and she was gay. There's even evidence that Santana had previously enjoyed relationships with men.
But the character came out anyways, not because she had to or because it was obvious to everyone around her that she was gay, but because her attraction to women was an aspect of her identity she was proud of. It wasn't an unfortunate reality she simply had to make the best of; it was an exciting, beautiful, aspect of her identity worth celebrating.
Before Santana, it had never really come home for me that being gay wasn't an entire identity—that it wasn't an affliction or disorder, but just another part of a person. She also didn't suddenly start wearing flannels or cutting her hair after coming out. She was the same feminine person she had always been. I had never realized that being a gay woman didn't have to look a certain way. Santana and Brittany's gay storyline showed two femme-presenting women in love, and for me, that was a revolution.
If it wasn't for Naya Rivera, we may never have had that important story line.
"It's up to writers, but I would love to represent [the LGBTQ community] because we know that there are tons of people who experience something like that and it's not comical for them in their lives," Rivera told E! News in 2011. "So I hope that maybe we can shed some light on that."
While Rivera herself wasn't gay (the importance of casting gay actors in gay roles is a separate conversation), she understood how important her character was to the queer community. "There are very few ethnic LGBT characters on television, so I am honored to represent them," Rivera told Latina magazine in 2013. "I love supporting this cause, but it's a big responsibility, and sometimes it's a lot of pressure on me."
Rivera wasn't just a supporter of the LGBTQ+ community on screen. In 2017, she wrote a "Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community" for Billboard's Pride Month. In it, she wrote, "We are all put on this earth to be a service to others and I am grateful that for some, my Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays may have given a little light to someone somewhere, who may have needed it. To everyone whose heartfelt stories I have heard, or read I thank you for truly enriching my life."
Now, as we mourn the loss of Naya Rivera, at least we can take comfort in knowing that her legacy will live on—that the light her Cheerios ponytail and sassy sashays gave us won't go out any time soon.
Excuse me, I have to go weep-sing-along to Rivera's cover of landslide now.
Glee - Landslide (Full Performance + Scene) 2x15 youtu.be
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