Directed by: Marielle Heller [Diary], Greta Gerwig [LB] || Produced by: Miranda Bailey, Anne Carey, Bert Hamelinck [Diary], Scott Rudin, Eli Bush, Evelyn O’Neill [LB]
Screenplay by: Marielle Heller [Diary], Greta Gerwig [LB] || Starring: Bel Powley, Alexander Skarsgard, Christopher Meloni, Kristen Wiig [Diary], Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothee Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley, Henderson, Lois Smith [LB]
Music by: Nate Heller [Diary], Jon Brion [LB] || Cinematography: Brandon Trost [Diary], Sam Levy [LB] || Edited by: Marie-Helene Dozo, Koen Timmerman [Diary], Nick Houy [LB] || Country: United States || Language: English
Running Time: 102 minutes [Diary], 94 minutes [LB]
I previously reviewed Susan Johnson’s Netflix hit, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), and Kelly Fremon Craig’s coming-of-age drama, Edge of Seventeen (2016), under the Double Review titled, “How the Other Half Lives… “. The title referred not only to the sheer dearth of women in the global filmmaking industry, but also to my own male-dominated life. Having grown up with two brothers and loving cinema from an early age, most of my cinematic inclinations solidified around ostensible masculine storylines, themes, and tropes. My tastes in film have diversified as I’ve aged, including stories centered around ethnic, religious, and sexual themes outside my area of “personal expertise.” Female-led or directed films have caught my attention in recent years often as a function of utter curiosity; as my dating history expands in size and breadth, my desire to learn about the female point-of-view in what I argue is the most empathetic of artistic media expands as well.
This is not an optimistic set of reviews, however. The previous “installment” of How the Other Half Lives… analyzed two films so well made as to appeal to any demographic without considerable effort. To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before was a stylized, colorful romantic adventure while Edge of Seventeen was a gritty, blunt examination of teenage angst. Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, on the other hand, are classic examples of not powerful female-driven cinema, but rather the self-righteous, self-important Oscar-bait I so often lament as either totally non-cinematic, heavy-handed or both.
I’ve casually scoffed at Diary of a Teenage Girl throughout this site as a repeated off-hand reference to impotent, overrated critical darlings, the kind of dramatic cinema critics inflate to boast their artistic affirmative action credentials at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and other respected film societies. The film’s themes are as on-the-nose as any modern Oscar-bait, spelling out its obvious moral lessons word for word through pointless voiceovers and loaded dialogue. Heller imbues Brandon Trost’s otherwise bland cinematography with memorable animation flourishes, which is appreciated, but not enough to elaborate upon its characters’ psyche or distinguish the overall movie from its predictable narrative formula. The film’s lighting is also inexplicably dark while also being high-key (low-contrast), which doesn’t fit the characters’ perky, snarky personalities or the story’s inconsistent tone, and looks about as ugly as Solo (2018).
Lady Bird could be considered a spiritual sequel to Diary of a Teenage Girl if the category of sassy, sanctimonious independent dramas was not an entire modern genre unto itself. Keeping that in mind, Lady Bird’s screenwriting weaknesses are to Edge of Seventeen’s written strengths as Diary of a Teenage Girl’s visual missteps are to All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’s cinematographic flourishes. Lady Bird’s directorial style is bland and lifeless, including Sam Levy’s direction of photography. The movie feels like watching a novel unfold, a story that views (reads?) like a project meant to be described rather than seen or heard, the sort of cinematic tone your high-school English teacher would love.
Lady Bird’s main character, portrayed with memorable gusto by rising phenom Saoirse Ronan, is realistic yet completely unlikable. The titular angst-ridden, insecure high-schooler is spiteful, dishonest, and self-centered without feeling relatable or sympathetic a la Hailee Steinfeld in Seventeen; she’s more akin to the aloof, sarcastic twerp that was Ellar Coltrane in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (2014) — again, a realistic performance of a common personality archetype, but not one that is (A) particularly interesting nor (B) likable enough to follow on-screen. It’s character realism at the expense of a captivating story.
In the end, The Diary of a Teenage Girl and Lady Bird are handicapped by a lack of visual imagination and unearned thematic snark. Their morality plays and character arcs are both predictable and heavy-handed, some times unnecessarily cynical while other times weirdly saccharine. Critics may admire these pictures’ frank depiction of women coming of age, but that subject-matter alone, without dedicated cinematic vision, is not enough to produce an interesting movie. These films depict such benign, pedestrian events about which no one would care unless they, the viewers, were living through those events at that exact moment. This is where cinematic or visual style is necessary, and Diary and Bird’s directorial styles range from passable at best to downright forgettable at worst.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Marielle Heller has enough talent for animation to make The Diary of a Teenage Girl mildly interesting from a cinematographic viewpoint, but not enough to compensate for its heavy-handed social commentary, cringe-worthy dialogue, and inexplicable lighting scheme. Lady Bird’s moral preaching goes down easier with better dialogue and fewer on-the-noise voiceovers, but Saoirse Ronan’s unlikable protagonist is neither worthy of our affections nor interesting enough to keep our attention.
— However… Diary at least boasts an identifiable, if nonsensical visual style, while Ronan’s titular Lady Bird performance is reference-level for teenage characters in cinema.
—> Both films are NOT RECOMMENDED.
? Sacramento is like the Midwest of California.