Newsies the Musical – Theatre Review: Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix

It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, it’s a genuine, theatrical thrill. It’s where a regional production surpasses the enjoyment of either the Broadway show or the National Tour. It happened last year with Stray Cat Theatre’s American Idiot. It’s happened again, this time at Phoenix Theatre.

The 1992 film may have flopped (and with good reason, despite its cult following) but somehow Disney’s live stage version of Newsies the Musical has proved hugely popular ever since it made its Broadway debut in 2012. The regional production you’ll see at Phoenix Theatre may not be on quite the same scale, but in terms of sheer, accomplished entertainment, the kind that unexpectedly hooks you from the opening and immediately reels you in, this Newsies the Musical is unbeatable.

In movie terms, the story of a real-life 1899 newsboy’s strike proved to have little appeal, despite the appearances of big names such as Christian Bale, Ann-Margaret, and Robert Duvall. Somehow, the story of paper delivery boys feeling the pinch of unfair raised prices and forming a union to protest felt too minor. Yet, popularity slowly grew due to the home video market. A theatrical tryout in New Jersey, then a transfer to Broadway proved more popular than expected. What was supposed to be a limited engagement in New York turned into a two year run, then a national tour. Amazingly, Newsies the Musical recovered its cost faster than any other Disney live stage production, a considerable achievement for any company, but even more remarkable when you consider that the other Disney Broadway musicals Newsies surpassed included such grand scale successes as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Now, that’s impressive.

Newsies the Musical takes its cue from the 19th century New York characters, The Dead End Kids and The Bowery Boys, with just a dash of something Dickensian added to the setting. It’s already a hard-knock life for this ragamuffin gang of youthful streetwise newspaper sellers. And when the publisher of the New York World, Joseph Pulitzer (Rusty Ferracane) gets greedy and raises prices at the expense of the boys, the ragtag team of underage sellers get organized and revolt. With names like Specs (John Batchan), Mush (Matthew Dean), Race (Eddie Olmo ll) and Crutchie (Brandon Brown) to name just a few, the boys of the Burroughs take a stand. As intrepid report Katherine (Emilie Doering) states, they’re a bunch of Davids taking on Pulitzer’s Goliath. They’re all about to unite, walk the walk, and tawk the NYC tawk.

On Broadway, above all, it was the ever-moving set design that impressed. The massive, multi-layered, metallic ladders and balconies, representing everything from tenement buildings to factory gates, slid smoothly around the stage, constantly creating in an instant new areas of the city for the boys to explore. Robert Kovach local scenic design has impressively captured a similar feel but on a smaller scale, successfully adapting the original look to fit the Phoenix stage. But what impresses the most in director Michael Barnard’s production is more than a workable, eye-catching set, it’s both the casting and James Kinney’s exhausting choreography, echoing all of Christopher Gatelli’s original moves with its leaps, back flips, cartwheels, somersaults, and pirouetting.

Unless you’re already familiar with the score through repeated plays, the music tends to blend. And while they’re workable in the moment, none stand out, with the exception of Katherine’s humorous Sondheim inspired Watch What Happens, terrifically performed by Doering as her character voices her doubts regarding her writing abilities. The ensemble pieces where the boys take center stage with their rousing calls of solidarity are more anthems than songs, and often difficult to tell apart. But what works so well is how the young cast sell them. They’re as aggressive on the boards as they are selling the papers, culminating each number with a crowd-pleasing, inspirational air salute that concludes every large number. Ending each exhaustive dance with fists in the air practically demands applause.

It’s a large cast, all of whom from the youngest to the oldest deliver, but those you’ll remember the most include the above-mentioned Doering’s hugely likable Katherine, Rusty Ferracane’s Pulitzer, who with his graying wig and thick gray beard makes an impressive villain without overdoing the villainous snarls, Chanel Bragg’s vaudeville entertainer Medda Larkin (she tears the house down with her big number That’s Rich) and the show’s central character.

As Jack, the leader of the gang, James D. Gish continually draws your attention. With his shoulder shrugs, his local NYC accent, and his facial expressions often resembling nervous tics that never quit, he’s like a walking, talking time bomb possessing an energy that if pushed might go off at any moment. Compared to previous performers seen in this role by this columnist – including the movie’s Christian Bale – Gish has crafted the character’s most enjoyable portrayal. He’s truly made the part his own.

But there’s another element to consider that makes this Phoenix Theatre production of Newsies work so well. There’s the intimacy of the theatre itself that helps draw audiences closer, something that worked against the show in larger venues. The ability to see everything at close hand not only helps you notice every facial movement or expression with greater clarity, but the occasional meeting of the eye between an audience member and a performer creates a connect not normally associated with larger auditoriums. It’s something only a theatre like Phoenix can accomplish. It can make you feel circumstantially involved.

To date, this Phoenix Theatre production is the easily most satisfying production of Newsies the Musical covered by this column. And certainly, the most enjoyable.

Pictures courtesy of Reg Madison Photography

Newsies the Musical will continue at Phoenix Theatre, Phoenix until December 31

Posted in Theatre

The Man Who Invented Christmas – Film Review

It’s not unusual to read that the way we celebrate Christmas today is the way classic Victorian era author Charles Dickens invented it in his 1843 novella. A Christmas Carol. Close, absolutely, but not exactly true.

Through the power of his written word, Dickens re-invented Christmas. December 25th was already a day of celebration for those who could afford it. But it wasn’t until Dickens published his story of the moneylender, Ebenezer Scrooge and his redemption, that over the years, the holiday eventually developed into a day of celebration for everyone.

In the new comic drama, The Man Who Invented Christmas, Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) is seen as a writer desperate for his next literary hit. Despite the enormous successes of both The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, the books that followed in monthly serials were not as popular. Sales dropped for Barnaby Rudge and Martin Chuzzlewit. In fact, readership faltered so much that Dickens found himself in a serious financial bind.

For the record, all of that is true. The new Bharat Nalluri directed film may be a somewhat fictional account of how Dickens wrote his famous novella, but while the focus of the film, the writing process, is presented as a writer’s imagination working overtime, the setup and the outcome are real. By having only six weeks to have the book written, illustrated, then published before Christmas, the film sets up a sense of urgency, a race against time. Dickens becomes an author with everything to lose.

Under pressure to deliver, the writer came up with a foundation for a short Christmas story. It wasn’t fully-baked – he didn’t know where it was going or how it would be told – but something came to him while wandering after dark through the busy streets of London. The author overhears remarks from those he passes that stirs inspiration, particularly from a dour gentleman who dismisses everything around him as “Humbug.” But when presenting his Christmas idea to his publishers in the hope of an advance, the men of business are less than enthusiastic. “Does anybody ever celebrate it anymore?” asks Chapman (Ian McNeice) of Chapman and Hall. After a falling out with his publishing partners, even Dickens’ best friend, John Forster (Justin Edwards) asked the writer, “Why throw it away for a minor holiday?” But Dickens was now inspired. The book had to be written, even if Dickens had to pay for the publication himself.

Historians and students of Dickens will tell you that the idea came to the man in one night; he had the whole thing mapped out from the beginning. All he had to do was get it on paper in time for John Leech (Simon Callow, himself a famous student of Dickens) to complete the illustrations. This turn of events would hardly make for an exciting tale of how the book was written, but by creating story-telling conflicts, moments of doubt and worry, and the will-he-or-won’t-he get it done on time sense of necessity, screenwriter Susan Coyne creates excitement. After all, if anyone knew how to spin a yarn it would be Dickens, why not spin one about Dickens. The author would be the first to appreciate a good tale.

The way the film frames events, Dickens didn’t so much write A Christmas Carol as take dictation. Characters turn up in Dickens’ writing room as living creatures of flesh and blood, talking to him, watching him work, while mouthing chunks of famous dialog that the author then feverishly commits to paper as they speak.

When Scrooge (Christopher Plummer) appears before Dickens expressing his dislike of Christmas, stating how every idiot who mutters, “Merry Christmas,” should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart, Dickens, without having to work for it, has his quote, fully formed. And with the book always in mind no matter where he goes, his cast follow in an ever increasing crowd of characters. When he looks out of the window and down into the streets, Dickens sees Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig standing on the corner, hanging out with Scrooge, waiting for the next stage of the story to be written. “You’d better come and see what just turned up,” states Scrooge to the author, acting as though he is now a permanent resident in the house. Dickens enters his writing room and is faced with the Ghost of Christmas Past floating above the floor, waiting to be included into the next phase of the story. It’s as if Dickens didn’t have to invent anything; it all fell into place before him.

Like many works of Dickens, students of the author will tell you how the inspiration for the man to write came from an exposure to many Victorian era social injustices. A Christmas Carol developed after Dickens became aware of the startling differences between the haves and the have nots, particularly at Christmas. Many families were either too poor or hungry to ever think of celebrating the 25th, while the privileged over-indulged in their merriment, rarely considering the plight of those below, oblivious to the differences. But while all of this is included in the film’s setup, it also draws an interesting comparison with Dickens’ own tormented childhood, suggesting that while Dickens wrote of things observed around him, his own background and relationship with his father, John Dickens (Jonathan Pryce) was just as important in forming the backstory to Ebenezer Scrooge.

Sumptuously shot widescreen by cinematographer Ben Smithard, The Man Who Invented Christmas doesn’t simply set the scene for the origins of our secular celebration of the season, there’s the exploration of a brilliant writer’s imagination and the creativity behind it all to take into account, and that makes things all the more enjoyable. Dan Stevens is an unusually manic Dickens, but watching him pace the room as he tries to find the right way to conclude his story, knowing there’s more at stake then just missing a writer’s deadline, adds further to the fun.

When he pounds the floorboards, trying desperately to come up with the right sounding name for his lead character, he explores everything from Snitch, to Scratch, from Scringe to Scridge. For the record, in the days of Dickens, the word “scrooge” was British slang, meaning ‘to squeeze something out of someone.‘ With that in mind, it’s probable that before Dickens even knew where his story was going, he already had the name in mind without the need for fretting. But like much of the comic fantasy we witness during the writing process, it all adds to what leads to a hugely satisfying conclusion.

Today, when we read about how poor office-clerk Bob Cratchit had to request Christmas Day off from work, we tend to see Scrooge as something more than merely insensitive when he grudgingly grants Bob’s wish. Yet at that time in London, and around the world, December 25th was generally a work day. It was by no means considered a holiday. Even if you’ve never considered that the writing of a Victorian author could in any way be responsible for your enjoyment of Christmas, when you raise a glass and give thanks to the founder of the feast at the dinner table, add Dickens to the toast. As The Man Who Invented Christmas shows, if it wasn’t for the writer, there’s a chance you might not even be celebrating the day.

MPAA Rating:  PG Length:  104 Minutes   Overall rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Coco – Film Review

In the uplifting and ultimately moving new Disney/Pixar animated fantasy, Coco, there’s a small village in Mexico called Santa Cecilia. In that village lives a small boy called Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez), and Miguel dreams of becoming a musician. But there’s a problem. While the twelve-year-old can play the guitar, his family has a ban on music. Miguel’s great-great grandfather walked out on the family to pursue a life of writing songs and playing the guitar. He was never seen again. Miguel has to practice in secret.

What sounds like a harsh punishment for something a relative did generations ago, especially when living in the middle of a town surrounded by the sound of music, it’s surprising that all other family members seem quite happy with their lives void of song, except, of course, Miguel. It’s even harsher when Miguel’s grandmother finds the boy’s guitar and smashes it, forcing the boy to steal the classic guitar of a departed idol. But something unusual happens. By stealing that instrument, Miguel is suddenly transported to the Land of the Dead. It’s the time of the Mexican holiday, Dia de Muertos, Day of the Dead, and Miguel is about to experience it from the point of view of the living.

Surprisingly, the film takes its time to get to where it’s heading. There’s a lot of business to cover before Miguel finds himself down under. Often, the kind of conflicts the young boy faces with his family, the family history, and the boy’s desire to play in a local village talent contest is enough to fill a full synopsis, but in Coco, that’s only the beginning. What follows once the boy walks among the skeletal spirits of his departed family members in the afterlife is a colorful, eye-popping adventure that fast becomes a feast for both the eyes and the ears. Lose yourself in Miguel’s adventure and there’s a very real sense of being transported in the way only cinema can achieve.

The adventure in the Land of the Dead takes Miguel through a fully immersive city full of life and color that virtually pops off the widescreen. Watching the film in 3D may do some of that eye-popping work for you, but see it in regular 2D and the colors will look brighter, the scenery and characters more detailed, and the overall admiration of the animated art more satisfying. There’s become a point in computer animation where scenery appears incredibly real. Whether some of the streets or buildings in the design are photoreal or not is difficult to tell, but when characters walk a cobbled road or enter a building, it often looks as though they are passing or walking upon something tangible.

There’s a lot that happens to Miguel, and there’s a lot he’ll learn about love, family, the power of music, and about respect for the departed. What may seem oddly macabre to outsiders about Day of the Dead proves fascinating and touching once understood. “Reach for that dream,” he is told by his departed idol, Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt), “Hold it tight, and make it come true.”

The skeletons of Coco (the name belongs to Mama Coco, Miguel’s great-grandmother) are warm-bodied creatures with heart that teach Miguel what it is to be alive. There’s a chance that those who live away from the influence of the Mexican culture and its folk art may immediately think back to 2014’s animated feature, The Book of Life. Like Coco, the celebrated, spiritual holiday and an adventure in the Land of the Dead were central to what happened. In some respects, without having both films playing side by side, Coco, with its bright, festive colors of the skeletons, might even look the same, but further comparisons would be unfair. In Southwestern states, pictures, figurines, and artifacts of the Day of the Dead are prevalent, but less so almost everywhere else. There are many stories to be told with the Mexican holiday as a backdrop, and to always compare every new one with the first one you saw and then dismiss it as a copy is to do yourself a disservice. Make no mistake, Coco is anything but a copy.

MPAA Rating:  PG    Length:  105 Minutes   Overall Rating: 8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Last Flag Flying – Film Review

Think back and you may recall a 1973 Hal Ashby directed film called The Last Detail. A Navy Signalman First Class and a Gunner’s Mate were ordered to escort a Seaman to a naval prison for committing a petty crime. You may read that writer/director’s Richard Linklater’s new comic-drama, Last Flag Flying is a sequel to Ashby’s famously profanity-laden film, but that’s not exactly true.

Linklater’s tale is not a continuation of Ashby’s story. The names are not the same, and only one of the three leads is ex-Navy, though he did spend time in the brig. If there’s a connection between the two films, then it has to be the overall tone of the piece, but there’s little else.

It’s Christmas 2003, though the season is never discussed. Former Navy Corp medic Richard Shepherd, better remembered as Doc (Steve Carell) wants to enlist the help of two marine buddies with whom he served in Vietnam. Doc is on a mission. His son, a young marine, killed in an ambush while serving in Iraq, is about to be buried with honors at Arlington Cemetery. Doc wants his two old colleagues to journey along the east coast with him for the service, but it’s thirty years since the three have seen each other. Doc’s first line of duty is to locate their whereabouts, which he does by simply going on-line and looking them up.

Former Marine Sal Nealon (a craggy Bryan Cranston) now runs Sal’s Bar, a dive in Norfolk. After Doc enters and parks himself on a stool, he tells the barman, “You don’t remember me, do you.” It takes a moment, but once the penny drops, Sal is thrilled to see his old pal. “Can you believe people now go to Vietnam for vacation?” he asks. When Doc explains what he’s doing, Sal, who’s game for anything at a moment’s notice, even if it means tossing the bar keys to one of his drunken regulars, does the driving.

The other ex-marine is Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne). To Sal’s amazement, Richard, who during his military days was known as ‘Mueller the Mauler’ because of his zeal for Vietnam whorehouses, is now a reverend. “What happened?” asks Sal. “I grew up,” responds the man of God.

But once at Dover Air Force Base, things don’t go quite as planned, resulting with Doc refusing to allow his son to be buried at Arlington. Instead, he removes the casket, rents a U-Haul, and the three buddies take a journey together that will eventually end in New Hampshire. Doc insists his son will be buried, not in uniform but in his high-school graduation suit and laid to rest next to the grave of Doc’s departed wife. “I’m not going to bury a marine,” Doc insists. “I’m just going to bury my son.”

The film has its storytelling flaws. Once Doc finds out what really happened to his son in Baghdad, the difference between the official account as related by the military brass and the reality doesn’t necessarily feel altogether less honorable. Yet it’s enough to make Doc believe that what he was initially told was dishonest enough that an Arlington burial was now out of the question, even if Colonel Wilits (Yul Vazquez) insists that the marine was still a hero and deserving of being remembered as one. Plus, the reasons Doc presents for wanting his two old friends with him feel thin. In fact, the more you reflect back on why Doc wants these two long-ago buddies by his side, men he hasn’t seen since they left the military thirty years ago and never kept in touch, it all feels less real and more of a writer’s device. But once you get over that hump and accept that two ex-marines would drop everything happening in their lives in an instant for a forgotten Navy buddy, there’s a lot to enjoy.

Told with surprising good humor as well as the poignancy you’d expect, the three characters, with all of their baggage and individual grievances, are ultimately likable, even if over the few days when they’re together they don’t always seem to like each other. As Sal, the dive-bar owner, Cranston has the showy role. There’s a theatrical broadness to his every action. It’s as if Linklater has directed him to project to those in the back row. Even his dialog has the sound and rhythm of something adapted from the stage. Carell plays against type, coming across as quiet and introspective, damaged from traumas both past and present. But it’s Fishbourne as the reverend, whose present day, calming spiritual demeanor is occasionally punctured by the voice of the man he was thirty years ago, who steals the film.

Like the recent Only The Brave, emotions in Last Flag Flying will run high, but the emotional impact is something that will more effectively pierce the hearts of minds of those who have served, friends of those who have served, and military families in general. That’s not say that others will not be moved by Doc’s plight, but the impact for those whose lives are or have been personally affected will undoubtedly feel things discussed in the film on a considerably deeper level. What should feel all too real to some may come across as maudlin to others. When Sal and Richard, whose attitude towards their military experience remains overwhelmingly negative, still talk of the moment when they first wore their blues, how proud they felt, and how it’s a feeling they’ll never forget, is something that may only be understood by those who have experienced it. Others may not even know what they’re referring to.

MPAA Rating: R   L ength: 124 Minutes Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Murder on the Orient Express – Film Review

After the 1934 novel, which is among the most popular of all Agatha Christie murder mysteries, followed by the successful 1974 Albert Finney film (every bit as enjoyable today as it was forty-three years ago) the issue of whodunit in the new Kenneth Branagh directed Murder on the Orient Express has to be the worst-kept secret of movie history. At least, that’s what you’d think.

But in the way that some can neither name the four Beatles nor pick Paul McCartney out in a crowd, there’s a whole generation or two that, if asked, have neither heard of the Christie classic nor of Christie herself. What might sound alarming – who has never heard of Agatha Christie? – in this case comes with an element of envy. Imagine going in to see a new version of Murder on the Orient Express with no prior knowledge. Now, that would be a treat.

During a ride on the luxurious Orient Express, a murder is committed. That morning, an avalanche of snow derails the engine, leaving the train and its occupants stranded, unable to move forward or back. Whoever committed the crime has to be among those still on the train, simplifying things in terms of suspects for Belgium detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) who just happened to be a passenger. Until a rescue crew can make it to the express and dig the engine out of the snow, Poirot has time on his hands. At the request of the train’s owner, the detective resolves to solve the mystery and reveal the murderer before the train becomes mobile.

Why you?” demands suspect Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe) when Poirot announces that he will lead an investigation. “My name is Hercule Poirot,” declares the Belgian, “And I am probably the greatest detective in the world.”

Branagh’s new, lavishly filmed, 70mm widescreen version doesn’t quite capture the romanticized feel of an elegant cinematic waltz, the kind that director Sidney Lumet brought to his ‘74 production, but the arc is the same, and so is the entertainment value. Where Christie’s story, like Lumet’s film, takes place within the confines of the carriages, Branagh occasionally expands things by drawing suspects out into the surrounding area. His Orient Express is less claustrophobic.

There are shots of characters walking across the carriage roofs, or sitting in chairs in the snow while the detective questions suspects. There’s even a dangerous chase across a bridge with a breathtaking drop where a moment of action is introduced in what is essentially an actionless mystery. Even the final confrontation, where all suspects are faced with Poirot’s observations and finger-pointing conclusion, takes place not in the privacy of a carriage, but outside, seated in front of a long table in the opening of a nearby mountain tunnel.

The film looks gorgeous. A nighttime, fairy-tale shot of the train dwarfed by the snow-capped, mountainous terrain, lit only by a bright, full moon above, becomes reminiscent of The Polar Express on its way to the north pole. Even the interiors, with the browns of the overnight sleeper carriages and the polished gold metal of the knobs and handles, add a richness to the overall visual splendor. The bigger the screen, the better. And if you’re lucky enough to be in an area where the 70mm print is showing, choose that venue. The film is not an epic, but director Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos take every given chance of showing a spectacular European scenic surrounding as the train makes its way from Istanbul to Paris, and it’s a pleasure to the eye.

In addition to shooting the scenery and making it look striking, Zambarloukos tries some other tricks. When the murder is discovered, the shot is an aerial view, looking directly down, as characters move from their sleeper, then along the hallway, then back to the squares of their rooms. It’s like looking down at the board during a game of Clue where pieces and suspects move from square to square after the discovery of a body at the bottom of the stairs. Flashbacks to an earlier crime scene are shot in black and white.

Branagh, with a comically gigantic, graying mustache that is practically a character in of itself, is center stage throughout. As for the ‘tache, it’s the kind that artists would draw on cartoon renditions of bald headed strongmen in vintage circus posters. There are moments of uncertainty that plague the detective in a way that Poirot is rarely presented. “If it were easy I would not be famous,” the detective states while accepting the challenges before him, but there are quieter moments when he appears surprisingly overwhelmed, and even doubts his ability to solve the murder.

Whether Branagh’s Belgian accent is any different to the language as spoken by a Parisian is difficult to say, but he does the continental his way, and it remains always humorously effective. Though, you might question the graying of that massive mustache. It’s doubtful that Christie’s prissy detective, as written, would ever allow himself to look aged without some grease and the blackening of things before appearing in public. But Branagh’s Poirot is different. He is neither timid nor dainty in his actions. His is a tall, broad-shouldered man who, when he loses his temper and shouts, can even appear borderline dangerous.

Oddly, the star-studded cast never quite make their mark in the way the same characters were played in Lumet’s ‘74 version. They’re all globally known actors – Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench to name a few – but their impact is diminished, overshadowed by Branagh’s dominating presence as Poirot. Part of that has to do with how each of the suspects are interviewed. Where both the book and Lumet’s ‘74 film had uninterrupted, individual scenes of interrogations, this new adaptation jumps from interview to interview at a snappy pace, often more like a montage of moments than full, revealing conversations. This kind of editing, born of the need to keep the low attention span of a present-day audience engaged, may give an exciting visual edge to what is really people talking in a room, but it clouds the information required to know what Poirot is learning while lessening the impact of the suspect’s presence. Before you’ve taken in what has been admitted, you’re already somewhere else with another character.

But while comparisons with earlier productions are going to be inevitable in such a piece as famous as this, there’s no doubting what’s effectively achieved in this update. The story remains wonderfully old-fashioned, and the surprise for those who never read and had no clue this was even a remake, the outcome in this lushly filmed new adaptation will surprise. But do yourself and your friends a favor. Tell no one who did it, why, or how. Don’t even mention the victim. That would also be a crime.

MPAA Rating:  PG-13   Length:  114 Minutes  Overall Rating:  8 (out of 10)

Posted in Film

Lady Bird – Film Review

Depending upon age, it’s possible that your initial response to the title Lady Bird might be that’s it’s political in nature, a biographical account of the wife to the nation’s 36th President. But Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut has nothing to do with either politics or the former First Lady. It’s the name of Gerwig’s central character, a teenager soon to move on from high-school to college. During a later scene, when asked by a teacher if Lady Bird is her given name, she responds, “Yes,” then adds, “I gave it to myself.”

In a sense, the film is biographical. Like its title character, Gerwig is a native of Sacramento, her mother was a nurse, her father was a computer programmer, and she attended an all-girls Catholic school. Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (superb Irish actor with a pitch-perfect American accent, Saoirse Ronan), is looking for her place in life, while making sure it doesn’t resemble that of her mother’s.

Do you think I look like someone from Sacramento?” Lady Bird asks as she checks herself in the bedroom mirror. “You are from Sacramento,” responds her matter-of-fact mother, Marion (an outstanding Laurie Metcalf in the role to remember).

There’s a bond between mother and daughter that is wildly troubled. Mom is a hard worker, strongly opinionated and determined to shape her daughter in a way that will make Lady Bird prepared for the life to come, even if it’s not necessarily a life the teenager wants. “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be,” her mom tells her. “What if this is the best version?” the young girl replies. As temporary boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges) tells Lady Bird when referring to Marion, “She’s crazy, and I’m scared of her.”

On a road trip when exploring future college possibilities, mother and daughter share time listening and crying to a cassette audio recording of a John Steinbeck novel. Once the tapes are done and the listening is over, the conversation starts, and it immediately becomes acrimonious. “All you think of is yourself,” mom declares, a statement that every son or daughter has probably heard, and one that means nothing to the offspring. Of course they only think of themselves. At this point, any normal child has never had to consider anything else, but parent’s say it, all the same. For Lady Bird, the only recourse to end the conversation, and to demonstrate her rebellious nature to mom’s non-stop insistence, is to open the car door while still in motion and intentionally fall out, resulting with a broken arm and a pink cast.

Her father (Tracy Letts) is different. Larry is an unemployed computer programmer whose recent dismissal from the workforce has resulted in even tougher financial times for the family. Worse, it further limits Lady Bird’s chances of escaping Sacramento. He’s depressed, but hides it behind a benign smile aided by the prescription pills he’s taken for years. Unlike the Steinbeck tapes, when driving in the car with dad, Lady Bird and Larry are listening to a track from Alanis Morisette’s Jagged Little Pill CD. “Do you know, Alanis Morissette wrote this song in only ten minutes?” Lady Bird asks, though less as a question, more as a fact. “I believe it,” dad dryly responds.

Written by it’s director, Lady Bird is a sharply observed, thorough delight. Both funny and touching, there’s not a wrong step along the way. Relatable on all levels, whether it’s from the point of view of the parents or the teenagers, there’s a warmth throughout that comes from a place of honesty and great humor. You might expect scenes of shouting and histrionics where the drama of conflict is overdone, but Lady Bird never goes there. Instead, there’s the clumsiness of adolescence, the truth behind parental fears and affections, and the feel of a generous spirit at work behind the camera. All that’s missing on screen is Gerwig herself, but in many respects, she’s there, in the quirks of Ronan’s performance. Lady Bird is a film to love.

MPAA Rating:  (Not Rated)    Length:  93 Minutes   Overall rating:  9 (out of 10)

Posted in Film