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Why Greta Gerwig’s ‘Lady Bird’ Is a Serious Oscar Contender

Gerwig's directorial debut is a small movie that starts personal, becomes universal, and is the toast of the Toronto Film Festival.

"Lady Bird"

“Lady Bird”

TIFF

Count on the Telluride Film Festival to deliver a surprise or two. Going in, buzz on Joe Wright’s Winston Churchill drama “Darkest Hour” had already reached a dull roar — and folks were prepared to be impressed by Annette Bening in “Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool,” Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” and Angelina Jolie’s Cambodia movie, “First They Killed My Father.”

But the movie that is building momentum as it hits Toronto, the one that A24 yet again will take all the way to Best Picture contention that could win a few Oscars (as “Moonlight” did last year), is Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.”

Greta Gerwig, Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts

Some people who like the movie well enough are saying it’s a small coming-of-age movie in an all-too-familiar high school setting. Never mind that: The reason this will go far is people can’t stop talking about it. Gerwig has been preparing herself for years, moving from theater maven and actress and constant writer to full-fledged collaborator with Joe Swanberg (“Hannah Takes the Stairs”) and her partner Noah Baumbach to solo filmmaker.

Her voice has rung clear all along — one of the reasons Gerwig did so well in the indie sector was her ace improvisational skills. She has always popped as an actress with a distinctive, powerful personality. But she came into her own with two romantic comedies, both of which she co-wrote with director Baumbach: the semi-autobiographical “Frances Ha” and the romantic comedy “Mistress America.” That was more of a romance between two women (Gerwig and Lola Kirke) than any of the men in their lives, and was best appreciated by fans of old-fashioned Hollywood slapstick comedies.

She shone in Rebecca Miller’s feminist romantic triangle comedy “Maggie’s Plan,” and nabbed some confidence from Miller to go forward with her own project, originally called “Mothers and Daughters,” set in California state capitol Sacramento during her character Christine’s senior year. She started from the shame nugget of why a Barnard freshman would lie that she was from San Francisco and not Sacramento. And she launches this valentine to her hometown with a quote from Sacramento’s own, Joan Didion.

Greta Gerwig - Sundance 2016

Greta Gerwig

Daniel Bergeron

Gerwig waited six months for Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) to emerge from producer Scott Rudin’s production of “The Crucible,” knowing she was the right person to play this fictional teenager who falls in love with her first boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), lusts after another (Timothee Chalamet), adores her sad-sack father (Tracy Letts) and defies her nurse mother (Laurie Metcalf) by applying to an East-Coast school that her scrimping family cannot afford.

Just talk to Gerwig, as I have over the years, and you’re impressed by smarts, charisma and humor, combined with a rigorous work ethic and intense self-criticism. As we all know, that is the recipe for high standards — and high art. (Our interview is still to come.)

“Lady Bird” played well in Telluride and Toronto, and will continue to resonate in the culture as not only the ultimate mother-daughter love story; Metcalf nails this angry, frustrated, loving mother who cannot help returning to old arguments over and over again. But this is also a movie like Best Picture contender “Boyhood,” with lasting and universal appeal that people will identify with and talk about.

With A24 and Rudin behind it, the Academy’s actors, writers, and directors recognizing the level of skill involved in making this movie work so well, and Gerwig charming the press corps, the movie should go far indeed.

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