Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird and Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri are both rich character studies about unlikable people behaving badly for good reasons. Writer and director Gerwig, who starred so affectingly in 2015's Maggie's Plan, pours an abundance of wit and wisdom into her story of dyspeptic 17-year-old Catholic schoolgirl Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who aches for more than her hypercritical mother (Laurie Metcalf) and kind but overwhelmed father (Tracy Letts) can give her. To assume that Lady Bird's unhappiness stems from parental dynamics, religious strictures or the "Midwesterly" sameness of Sacramento might be to overlook the more obvious answer -- Lady Bird is young, enormously self-involved, talented but under-motivated and cursed with bad judgment. In short, she's a teenager but rarely has the angst of those years been captured so vividly. To me, this is less about coming of age milestones (first crush, first sexual experience, getting the driver's license, prom) than it is about more nuanced experiences -- learning one's true value and that of other people.

British writer / director Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards is a bloody uncompromising tale of grief and recompense. The dynamic Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a local shopkeeper whose daughter was raped and murdered by unknown parties months before we meet her. Anger and frustration lead Mildred to rent the billboards of the title and post messages to local law enforcement (and the world) that she's not happy. Named on the billboard is the chief of police of Ebbing (played by Woody Harrelson) who tries to reason with Mildred while keeping tabs on a loose-cannon police officer (Sam Rockwell) who has a reputation for brutalizing townspeople, especially blacks. Aside from these three superb performances, the film's narrative intricacy (the law of unintended consequences is almost a character in the film) is what makes the story so compelling. Both films feature a fine performance by the young actor Lucas Hedges, whose role as Patrick in last year's Manchester by the Sea won him an Oscar nomination.

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