Lady Bird

Lady Bird

New Release Reviews - 20171119 Lady Bird

Directory: Greta Gerwig

Year: 2017

Bechdel Test: Pass

From her days as a mumblecore (yeah I said it) actress and writer to her relationship, both personally and professionally, with Noah Baumbach, Greta Gerwig has solidified herself as an indie darling.  Lady Bird marks her debut as a director, but her voice resonates so deeply that it’s like she had always been one.  With just her first film, Gerwig has staked a claim to the title of auteur.  Despite not having an acting roll, every moment of the film seems specifically of the world in which Gerwig’s previous characters exist.

Lady Bird spans a full year, specifically Christine “Lady Bird’s” final year of high school the same year that Gerwig herself graduated (2002-2003).  By focusing on such a tumultuous time in a young woman’s life, the film is able to explore a variety of relationship dynamics without being slave to a traditional plot.  The prospect of leaving the life she’s known for one of her own results in an excuse to experiment with social identities.  Throughout her senior year, she dates two vastly different boys and explores a new, more risqué friend group, leaving her longest friends behind, and tests her connection with family while seeking to leave them behind.

Saoirse Ronan plays the titular Lady Bird, a name she bestowed upon herself much to the chagrin of her mother.  Together they serve as each other’s object of antagonization.  Lady Bird as a high school senior can almost taste the incoming freedom that college will allow her, and longs to escape Sacramento which she sees as her prison.  Her mother Marion, Laurie Metcalf, stresses herself with reality.  She works double shifts at the psychiatric clinic so her family can scrape by while her husband is unemployed.  She sees Lady Bird’s ambitions as frivolous quirks that should be stamped out in favor of more plausible ones.  Her motivations reflect the reality that she knows, but this practicality barricades her from understanding her daughter.  Despite these inherent differences in world view, Lady Bird and her mom still maintain a mother daughter relationship.  Little moments between the two of them break through as genuinely sweet connections.

Gerwig’s direction brings voice to the women in her film. Characters are imbued with humanly and react with the nuance that reflects this.  When events don’t turn out how Lady Bird would expect, her emotions reflect the wide gambit that a young woman’s would.  Through all of her trials she seeks refuge in her friend Julie, Beanie Feldstein.  Long evenings crying to Dave Matthew’s Band’s “Crash” in a way the feels both ironic and genuine.  They understand each other deeper than anyone else, and even months of fighting can be forgotten when they need each other.  Their friendship reflects the unique bond that women share.  This connection even more than the mother daughter one exemplifies Gerwig’s inherent understanding of her characters.  The honesty in their emotions brings a level of relatability to the viewer.  Their relationship resonates with other women in its reality.

Lady Bird’s relationships with the men in her life also reflect an understanding from a woman’s side of the interactions.  When catching her boyfriend making out with another guy, she responds with anger.  She has no interest in the opportunity to have a gay best friend, but is hurt and betrayed.  Her emotions need time to heal before she can fulfill the expected stereotypical relationship a less in tune director would default to.  Likewise, her second boyfriend’s nonchalant disregard for her attracts her, but instead of playing off the tired trope of women liking bad boys, she attaches herself to specific traits in him.  She knows that he’s flawed but find that she can use his flaws almost as effectively as he can use her.  She does her best to resist the eventual heartbreak, and when it inevitably comes, she’s able to rebound much quicker because of this arm’s length detachment.

Lady Bird is one of those few films that is genuinely perfect.  Gerwig’s voice is everything that American Independent cinema needs.  She can exchange the tired cliché roles reserved for women in the quirky Sundance genre with genuine, deep, lead performances.  Saoirse Ronan isn’t a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, nor is she any other twee trope.  The beauty of Lady Bird’s character and Ronan’s performance is that she’s you and me.  She is every young woman struggling to etch out her place in life resisting the circumstances that would insist she follow a standard path.

The Florida Project

The Florida Project

New Release Reviews - 20171109 The Florida Project

Directory: Sean Baker

Year: 2017

Bechdel Test: Pass

Some background is necessary before I can get into Sean Baker’s newest film The Florida Project in earnest.  I do my best to go into all films as blind as possible.  I avoid trailers and reviews outside of general buzz as to not cloud my judgement.  Despite going into The Florida Project knowing next to nothing, I was always going to love this film.  Baker’s previous film Tangerine came out right as I was transitioning, and his understanding and depiction of trans women instantly endeared him to me.  For the first time I could recall, a director depicted someone like me as a fully formed person and not a punch line or exploitative cash in.

The Florida Project doesn’t include any trans characters, but Baker’s love for underappreciated communities again shows through.  This time he focuses on a welfare community in an Orlando motel.  Brooklynn Prince plays the young Moonee who lives in a cut-rate room with her mother Halley played by Bria Vinaite.  Moonee spends her days playing with the other children who occupy the nearby hotels and frequently harassing her hotel manager Bobby expertly played by Willem Dafoe.

Despite a rather climactic ending, The Florida Project is sparse on plot instead focusing on relationships like Tangerine.  Moonee is the center of everything and her distinctive relationships with her peers (specially Jancey played by Valeria Cotto), her mother, and her authority figure (Bobby) drive the film.  These relationships from the eyes of a young girl reflect an underserved demographic.  Young coming of age stories from boys are a dime a dozen, but seeing a young girl’s story and relationships is a unique story.

Moonee’s relationship with her peers represent allow her an escape from the struggles that her reality entails.  She befriends Jancey on the day that she and her grandmother move in after earning a less than stellar first impression by covering her grandmother’s car in spit.  Moonee assures Jancey’s mother to “relax, your daughter is safe in my hands” instinctively taking Jancey under her wing.  Moonee has learned how to be a child despite the circumstances, and in her leadership position, includes Jancey on her adventures.

Life, even in the poorest of circumstances maintains its mystery to them.  A “safari” culminating in a cow in a field entertains the same as a trip to Disney World would.  Through these explorations, they form a bond stronger than a normal childhood friendship.  Playdates seem less a source of entertainment, and more a necessity of life be it begging for ice cream and lunch or escaping to the abandoned housing development and pretending they have a better life.

Halley and Moonee’s relationship is the most nuanced of the focuses.  Halley clearly loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but is forced to subject her to dangers in order to do so.  Moonee’s pension for running from authority is a learned skill from her mother.  Together they break the law scalping brand name perfume or stolen Disney passes.  As her situation becomes more and more desperate, she turns to selling sexual favors, but through her love of Moonee turns taking bikini pictures into a bonding time.  The mother daughter bonding and love feels genuine, and brings an additional level of heartbreak to their situation.  Deep down Halley knows that she can’t provide Moonee with the life that she deserves, but sacrifices everything she can to keep them together for as long as possible.  Moonee reciprocates these feelings, but does so through the eyes of a child.  She may not always get along with Halley, but always comes back to her for safety.

Willem Dafoe’s character acts as the bridge between the fantasy of the children, and the reality of their parents.  Given his property for their playground, the children of the welfare hotel constantly create more work for him, and he’s justifiably enraged as they break into the maintenance room and pull the power switch.  And yet, he sees them as they are: children trapped in an unfortunate situation.  Bobby does his best to protect their naivety between urging naked sun bathers to cover and at one point chasing away an assumed predator.  It’s his worry for Moonee that enables his lenience with Halley.  On multiple occasions, he issues her a “final” warning to pay rent on time, but his soft side shows through as he does his best to keep them housed to the extent that he can given his position.

Moonee’s innocence is only broken by the threat of losing her mother when it’s exposed that she’s prostituting herself to maintain rent.  She runs from the social workers to Jancey’s place and finally breaks down in tears as her harsh reality surfaces.  For the first time Moonee starts to cry.  Given the level of hardship she remained unfazed through, the young Prince’s emotion is palpable in its intensity.  Seeing her friend in such a vulnerable place, Jancey instinctively assumes Moonee’s role and takes her on an escape allowing her to remain in childhood if only a little longer.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Current Reviews - Professor Marston and the Wonder Women

Directory: Angela Robinson

Year: 2017

Bechdel Test: Pass

After the blockbuster success of this summer’s Wonder Woman, Angela Robinson aspires to tell a different kind of origin story.  Leaving the world of fantasy, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women, delves into the taboo circumstances that led to the character’s inspiration and creation.

The titular Marston, is Radcliffe professor Bill Marston played by Luke Evans.  Aided by his wife Elizabeth (expertly portrayed by Rebecca Hall), an aspiring professor Marston herself, they use one of his psychology courses to lure in a young woman as a research assistant/ subject.  Olive Byrne, Bella Heathcote, catches their interest, and applies for the position.

The intimate nature of their research leads to a sexual and romantic tension growing between the three, and the eventual beginning of a polyamorous relationship.  This relationship had no home in the 1920’s and led to the firing/ expulsion of all three.  Olive’s pregnancy acts as the catalyst they needed to make a go at a hidden, permanent polyamorous relationship.  The second half of the film explores their relationship, and how it influences Bill in his eventual creation of the Wonder Woman comics in its original sexualized nature.

The reality of Wonder Woman’s inspiration comes from decades of Bill Marston’s life experiences, and this scope proves too ambitious for the relatively inexperienced Robinson.  The story of the trio’s time at Radcliffe is the strength of the film, but unfortunately in order to tie their relationship into the Wonder Woman comics, this portion of their lives is relegated to less than half the film.  Once they leave the school 20 years of plot are rushed through to provide the necessary background instead of allowing the three to naturally exist and explore their relationship.

The film may have been better served omitting the Wonder Woman narrative all together.  In addition to scope issues, Bill himself is a dreadfully unlikable character, and using his creation as the driving force of the story is a disservice to the wonder women.  In the opening minutes of the film Elizabeth is introduced as the Marston with intuition into the human psyche.  When first observing Olive, before she even enrolls as their assistant, Bill displays a complete lack of understanding of her circumstances and motivations.  Elizabeth imparts the reality of a woman’s experience while being hounded by men onto him, exposing his naivety.  After Olive joins their research, Bill’s technique is exposed as voyeuristic and perverse.  Throughout the film, Bill is never portrayed as overcoming these character flaws, and as such it is difficult to accept the thesis in the framework that his use of sex in the original Wonder Woman comics is anything but exploitative.

Congruent to the screenplay issues, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women suffers from tonal unevenness.  The strength of the film comes in its levity.  Elizabeth and Olive have a wonderful playfulness to their interaction, but this is frequently bogged down by moments of melodrama as more taboo subjects are introduced in an exploitative manner.  This tonal dichotomy is most apparent in the initial polyamorous sex scene.  Punctuated by verbose score, the exploration in alternating kisses between the three of them screams “Look at me and be shocked”.  Yet after the inciting moments of the scene, the score pivots into a playful brass section and the three of them finally appear to suddenly find enjoyment in their sex, playfully raiding the costume wardrobe of the university stage and engaging in less stringent acts.  They are left to play in a more realistic manner bringing a more human feel.

Numerous flaws notwithstanding, an underlying voice inside me can’t help but scream its adoration for Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.  After an Oscar worthy performance in Christine, Rebecca Hall returns and is once again nearly perfect as Elizabeth Marston.  She exhibits brilliant nuance as a woman striving for respect, yet finding herself in a taboo love that threatens what her life ambitions.  In conjunction with Hall’s portrayal, Angela Robinson flexes the screenwriting strength she does possess through Elizabeth and Olive’s interactions.  She captures the inherent difference in the way that men and women perceive others.  Elizabeth and Olive question each other and have intimate discussions genuinely entrenched in a women’s reality.  Their ability to understand the importance of subtext while Bill remains a slave to the overt text reflects a feminine reality in a way that few films do.  Robinson understand the depth of women’s relationships, and in a male driven medium, this depiction of reality is refreshing.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women attempts to do too many things.  Between telling a decades long love story, examining the origins of an iconic superhero, and exploring taboo, sex-positive themes, the film had very little odds to execute any successfully.  Yet Angela Robinson’s understanding of women interaction propped up by Rebecca Hall’s excellence ensured a level of success unique enough to redeem many of its faults.  While not an excellent film, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women justifies its existence through its entry as a sex-positive, feminist film.

Paris is Burning My Heart

Paris is Burning

52 Films - 20170824 Paris is Burning

Director: Jennie Livingston
Year: 1990

Jennie Livingston’s 1990 documentary “Paris is Burning”, is a pillar of queer cinema that had managed to evade me until just recently.  In her sole documentary outing to this day, Jennie explores Harlem’s 1980’s queer scene, focusing on the drag balls. Initially held exclusively for traditional drag queens, by the time of filming, they had expanded to include all people of color in Harlem’s queer community.  By focusing on both the balls as well as the stars who imbued the culture, she paints a story of life during that time for these otherwise abandoned people.

The stories of balls’ participants differentiate throughout the documentary varying from a strictly educational fare to a humanizing story of a previously hidden culture.  The elder, yet still elegant, drag queen Dorian Corey acts as tour guide.  Having performed in balls in their infancy when her brand of drag was the only brand, she had seen them evolve into the phenomenon that they had become.  She imparts how they expanded from purely showcasing feminine impersonation to opening their doors to the entire queer community.  They understood that everyone had a persona worth presenting and celebrating.

The expansion of drag culture to encompass individual expansions of all kinds is exemplified as Livingston follows Malcolm McLaren a master ball competitor in the category of his own invention: voguing.  It’s in this section that “Paris is Burning” veers deepest into a more traditional documentary approach.  Malcom and his dance craze are studied, and the origins of the pop culture phenomena are uncovered.  While interesting, and important to uncover these counter cultural roots, the deviation from the personal in this section feels a disservice to the goals of the rest of the film.

The introduction of the houses and house mothers, midway through the documentary, acts as a foil for the voguing section.  In these moments, the audience is both educated of the familial groups the castoffs create and presented with an in intimate view into the lives of the house mothers.  Dorian Corey, a mother of House of Corey herself, describes the purpose of the houses at which point the film directs it’s primary focus to House Xtravaganza.

Dorian’s introduction serves as the necessary background for “Paris is Burning”’s stars to shine.  Angie Xtravaganza, mother of House Xtravaganza, and her children are a returned to throughout the bulk of the film.  Instead of explaining the relationship between house mother and children, their actual relationships are captured.  Simply watching the film, allows the viewer to meet the fabricated family, and empathize with their plight.  Most having been exiled from their blood family, the house members rely on each other.  The houses provide sanctuary from the rampant homophobia and transphobia waiting for them outside.

Standout Xtravaganza star Venus serves as the emotional pillar of the film, outshining the rest of her siblings.  Despite existing in a time unaccepting of her identity, her comfort in herself is an inspiration.  She dreams of becoming a “spoiled, rich, white girl living in the suburbs” radiates naivety and hope.  Her innocence stays pure even as her actions don’t.  She shoplifts and partakes in sex worker to save money for her eventual gender confirmation surgery.

Before the documentary finishes filming however, Venus was strangled to death by a client, presumably distraught by Venus’s transgender identity.  As a trans woman myself, I broke into tears over Venus’s death.  Unable to watch the last twenty minutes until much later, I attempted to process what I saw.  The surrounding presence of transphobia was not hidden from the film, so the potential existed, but Venus was too real to accept her death.  I felt I lost a friend I had only met an hour before.

Personal anger and distress aside, Jennie Livingston was successful in the films goal, and including the details of Venus’s death were and important part of that.  She brings eyes to the Harlem ball scene, and introduces it’s wonderful participates, but the juxtaposition of hatred just outside the ballroom halls is what illuminates the most important purpose of the balls.  They served as a place where these personas could exist in safety since the outside world wouldn’t allow it.  Only through the decision to focus on the people, rather than the events themselves, was the emotional connection created to drive in the importance.  This understanding is why “Paris is Burning” holds up as a queer classic.  It’s more than a documentary of a fad, but a story of people’s lives.