Life is Sweet (1990) and Lady Bird (2017)

Dir. Mike Leigh. Starring Alison Steadman, Jane Horrocks, Jim Broadbent

Dir. Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts

Some spoilers below for Lady Bird. And Life is Sweet, too, but that movie is older than me and I think I’ll be forgiven for “spoiling” it.

Patience is a virtue, so we hear, and when we think about it in moviegoing terms it’s easy to say that about a movie made by Bela Tarr or Michael Haneke or Terrence Malick. Yet in a short feature—Life is Sweet, which is about an hour and forty-five minutes, runs ten minutes longer than Lady Bird—patience is an underrated virtue. Both of these movies are episodic, unafraid to throw an event out there with tenuous connections to another. One thinks of Timothy Spall’s character and his ill-fated Regret Rien in Life is Sweet, or the broadness of what looks like a year in Lady Bird’s (Ronan) life. In both movies, it takes a long time to land the punch we know must come, that we’ve waited for. Life is Sweet finally lets Wendy (Steadman) unload on Nicola (Horrocks) after having worked around and abetted, with good humor, all of her daughter’s self-pitying isolation. We know about your eating disorders. We almost watched you die because of your eating disorders. And we care about you, she says as she huffs out of her daughter’s sanctum. The culmination of the many mother-daughter lacerations in Lady Bird is at the airport. Marion (Metcalf), who has been giving her daughter the on-and-off silent treatment since she discovered that Lady Bird went behind her back to apply to New York schools, is dropping her off. Lady Bird is still a little surprised that her mom won’t come into the terminal to say goodbye; ever practical, Marion says that parking is too expensive and that she won’t even be able to get up to the gate anymore. Lady Bird rolls her eyes, slams the door, and leaves with her dad (Letts). The camera, wisely, follows Marion as she makes the loop around the airport, slowly beginning to tear up before she finally parks illegally and runs into the terminal: Lady Bird is already through security. It takes a while to get to each moment, at least eighty percent of the movie, after what’s felt like idling or taking the loop around again. But the payoff is all the more powerful because we’ve held on for such a moment, because we waited for it and hoped it would come and, in the end, don’t even get much closure out of it. (Life is Sweet does not work very hard to give us closure, and is better for it. The opposite is true in Lady Bird.) Those are the moments which seem most realistic because they hang somewhere outside of time. In our own recollections, I don’t think we frequently think of an entire event, from beginning to end, waking to sleeping. We find the hottest place and, for better or worse, cozy up to it like shivering hands over embers. Life is Sweet and Lady Bird work on those principles, and while other things have happened in those days—Nicola has laid around the house, Lady Bird got in the car with her parents on her Big Day to fly to the Big Apple—the scolding and the crying will stand out in the years to come.

The most obvious connection between the two movies is the economic status of the two families. Both parents work in both families, and while money is always a concern, it never reaches a breaking point. Andy (Broadbent) can still dig deep to buy a trailer to serve food out of, while the McPhersons manage to send their daughter to an expensive school in New York City without ending up on the street. Yet the scramble is there all the same. Wendy decides to start waitressing at Aubrey’s place (although that falls through almost immediately after the worst opening night in the history of restaurants), and about midway through Lady Bird Larry loses his job and finds himself boxed out for a new one by his son. Both movies need to add “lower-middle-class” to the descriptors of their families for the stories to work. It adds stakes to Life is Sweet, which otherwise might be a little limp. I kept expecting Andy to open up his van, but after thinking about it a little more it’s obvious that the failure of the van would have taken the movie from family drama to fiscal collapse drama, which would not serve the movie. The movie is significantly more effective when it reveals that the reason the family started with a hand tied behind its back is because Wendy got pregnant with the twins before she and Andy were ready for them; it was a choice between having the girls and having a chance at more fulfilling careers. Being on the edge of moderate financial ruin is the reason why Marion is the way she is with Lady Bird. It is profoundly obvious to her that she is the reason that her family hasn’t gone belly-up, which, for a person as abrupt as she is, is the reason she doesn’t have the words to explain it to anyone else. Lady Bird recognizes that her family isn’t doing well, but it’s not really on her radar, either. She does not give up the dream of college in New York even though UC Davis is practically free. She obsesses about having a nicer house than the one she lives in. Whatever interests her in a moment interests her totally, and if it fails to hold her interest then it moves somewhere else.

What Lady Bird does as well as any movie I’ve ever seen about teenagers is depict their unpredictability. Lady Bird is the prizewinner here, really—it’s actually kind of amazing how consistent her classmates are, albeit necessary for the movie to progress—flitting between reality and fantasy. The fantasy of boyfriends appeals to her and the reality of how useless they are in high school only strikes her when sex comes up. One, Danny (Lucas Hedges), is gay and hurts her badly when she catches him making out with another boy. The other, Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), is aggressively political but otherwise totally laid back; he hurts her badly when it turns out that he wasn’t a virgin. That essential teenage property of being old and having plans and working oneself into a real human being while simultaneously being young, naive, and clumsy is spot-on in Lady Bird. Although she’s only four years older, Nicola is significantly more advanced in some ways. particularly sex. (The difference between someone who’s eighteen and someone who’s twenty-two is like decades for other adults, which I think everyone knows but which people don’t act on nearly enough.) Lady Bird’s “I wanted it to be special” attitude about sex is a little precious no matter how much you like her, but that might be preferable to Nicola’s somewhat disturbing take on the nasty. A very young David Thewlis plays her nameless partner. Their routine, which Nicola dreams up, involves tying her to her bed, slathering chocolate on her bare chest, and sucking/licking/squelching it off. It’s about a thousand times grosser than it sounds, one of those scenes which makes you put down your popcorn until you’re a safe distance away. Lady Bird would have ralphed by the time the box of chocolates appeared from underneath Nicola’s bed. Both Nicola and her goody-goody twin, Natalie (Claire Skinner) are old enough to have stabilized but young enough to still think they’ll do something with their lives. Natalie will be a plumber for the rest of her foreseeable existence, but dreams of visiting America. Nicola is allergic to anything outside the house and a great deal of what’s inside it, too; one rarely finds her away from her bed or the couch in the living room. Teenage unpredictability eventually comes down to this early twenties paralysis in which we can start inferring what people will do, but the people are liable to become more emotionally erratic if the stability is in fact stagnancy. Such is Nicola’s story. It’s easy to imagine a future for Lady Bird in which she comes to terms with her mother and meets personal and career goals, as Natalie does. It is a little easier to imagine her going off the rails with the fullness of spirit Nicola descends into.

“But do you like me?” Lady Bird asks her mother while she’s trying on potential prom dresses. “If you hate me so much, why don’t you throw me out?” Nicola cries at the climactic moment of an argument she’s having with her mother. Marion and Wendy have similar answers, although Wendy’s has a little more panache; she sacrifices “of course I love you” with “We love you, you stupid girl!” Both movies find their greatest effectiveness when they open up and say the l-word. Lady Bird lingers on what other emotions are in that mother-daughter relationship in a way that I find counterproductive. It’s the love that Marion feels for Lady Bird and vice versa, regardless of how frequently they clash, which makes the movie work: how grateful Lady Bird is after a day at college, or how little Marion likes Lady Bird as a person, are red herrings. Life is Sweet does stronger work, slamming the door on the “love” talk both physically and metaphorically. If the word is as powerful as either movie believes it is, it can’t be outdone or built upon through other emotions. Love is simply immutable in a way that is comforting and moving in both pictures.

2 thoughts on “Life is Sweet (1990) and Lady Bird (2017)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s