By Gregg Shapiro
Lady Bird (A24), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Fox Searchlight) and In the Fade (WB/Magnolia), three movies that took top honors at the Golden Globe Awards in January 2018, and look to be strong Academy Award contenders, have more in common than you might think. Each are contemporary stories with strong female characters.Equally significant is the way that the maternal characters in all three are portrayed with intelligence and respect, in spite of the situations in which each finds themselves. The three actresses tasked with these demanding roles – Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird), Frances McDormand (Three Billboards…) and Diane Kruger (In the Fade) – exceed expectations in every possible way.
Greta Gerwig may lack range as an actress, but it’s possible that her real talent lies behind the camera instead of in front of it. With Lady Bird (A24), her second full-length feature film as writer/director, Gerwig joins the ranks of acclaimed female filmmakers such as Jill Soloway, Nicole Holofcener, Dee Rees, Lisa Cholodenko, Gillian Robespierre and Sofia Coppola.
Within the first few minutes of the Sacramento-based, 2002-set film we discover that Christine aka Lady Bird (Golden Globe-winner Saiorse Ronan) and her nurse mother Marion (Metcalf) don’t get along. A directionless and unpopular student on scholarship at Immaculate Heart High School, Lady Bird lives “on the wrong side of the tracks” with her mother, father Larry (Tracy Letts), and older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodriguez) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott).
Buckling down to maintain her scholarship as well as having something to offer the colleges to which she is applying, Lady Bird finds herself in a variety of precarious and often humorous situations. Along with best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), she gets cast in the school play, where she falls for the male lead, rich kid Danny (Lucas Hedges, from Three Billboards… and Manchester By the Sea), only to have her heart broken when she discovers him kissing a male classmate. She then explores her bad girl side, befriending popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush) and dating musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet of Call Me by Your Name renown). Not surprisingly, this only creates a greater rift between Lady Bird and Marion, leading to an emotionally draining confrontation that forever changes their mother/daughter dynamic.
That rare combination of comedy and drama, fresh and original writing matched with strong direction and mesmerizing performances from Metcalf and Ronin are mesmerizing, Lady Bird is a soaring triumph.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, now appears to be the one to beat come Oscar time. That’s especially true in the case of McDormand, who could handily score another gold statuette.
Mildred (McDormand) ruffles more than a few feathers in her small Missouri town when she rents the titular billboards on a relatively quiet stretch of road a few months after the brutal, unsolved rape and murder of her daughter Angela. The emotional and psychic pain that the loss and ongoing mystery causes in Mildred’s daily life is palatable. It even spills over onto her son Robbie (the previously mentioned Hedges).
The billboards get Mildred attention, both welcome and unwelcome. Sheriff Bill (Woody Harrelson), who is called out by name on one of the billboards, tries to reason with Mildred. Although aware that Bill is dying of cancer, Mildred refuses to back down. Police officer Jason (Globe-winner Sam Rockwell), an alcoholic with a history of racist behavior, also gets on Mildred’s case. She almost comes to blows with her ex-husband Charlie (John Hawkes) and is harassed by a stranger at the gift shop where she works in a particularly frightening scene.
It is Mildred’s determination to see her mission through to its end that is at the broken heart of the movie. McDormand’s portrayal of a grieving mother is raw and authentic, setting the bar even higher for any actresses that follow.
Fatih Akin’s IntThe Fade (WB/Magnolia), which won Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language at the Globes, is separated into three sections – “The Family”, “Justice” and “The Sea”. In the first, Katja (Diane Kruger) is happily married to Turkish ex-con and reformed drug dealer Nuri (Numan Acur). Nuri works as a tax advisor in Hamburg, Germany and they have a six-year-old son named Rocco (Rafael Santana). A few hours after dropping Rocco off at Nuri’s office so she can meet a friend at a hammam, a bomb explodes on the sidewalk in front of Nuri’s place of business, killing the father and son. Katja is devastated by the loss and determined to aid in the investigation find the killers.
In the second aptly titled section, In the Fade becomes a courtroom drama. We agonize along with Katja as she sits through trial, listening to the horrific details of the bombing’s aftermath. At one point, when she flips out in court and attempts to attack one of the accused bombers, a female Nazi, we feel her pain. The trauma only increases when the woman and her husband are acquitted.
The third, and final section, follows Katja to a seaside town where she tracks down the married Nazi couple. The movie shifts gears, becoming a story of retribution. The last few minutes are alternately captivating and shocking. Undeniably topical in light of the current refugee crisis and changing attitudes towards immigration, In the Fade is especially notable for Kruger’s portrayal of Katja. It ranks as the most spellbinding performance of her career.