Sunday 8 October 2017

London Film Festival 2017: Elephants and Lady Bird

The London Film Festival is committed to gender parities, and female directors had an impressive showing in this year's edition, throughout genres and countries, as proven by two very different films, Pop Aye by Kristen Tan, and Lady Bird by Greta Gerwig.

There is more to Thai cinema than Apichatpong Weersathakul and its seductive blend of dreamy spiritualism. In Pop Aye by Kirsten Tan, a middle aged man unexpectedly bumps into his long lost elephant in the streets of Bangkok, and makes it its quest to bring its childhood home in the countryside.

There is a touch of The Straight Story in Pop Aye, with which it shares an unlikely quest by an older man as its premise. While the David Lynch film was about mending conflicts at the end of one's life, Kristen Tan is focusing on middle-age anxieties. Trapped in a difficult marriage, not so much loveless as one where communication seems to have ceased, our lead Thana (Thanet Warakulnukroh) also feels left behind at work, facing younger and ambitious colleagues.  So this adventure is just as much about reconnecting with his past as it is about finding a new future.

Pop Aye is a wonderfully affecting and bittersweet dramedy, filled with melancholy about the passage of time, but which also asks us not to forget to open our eyes to the world when focusing on our own problems. Just like in an self-respecting road movie, it is filled with a gallery of secondary characters met along the way, from a man which seems to have retreated from the world, obsessed with his first love, to an ageing, provincial ladyboy Thana strikes a passing friendship with. Let's not forget the star of the show, Bong the elephant, which delivers an particularly expressive performance. With much subtlety, Kirsten Tan brushes the portrayal of a man at the crossroad of his life, and delivers a quietly affecting film.

The Surprise Film is the London Film Festival's most beloved tradition, and the hottest ticket in town. There is a certain thrill to be had to be made to watch a film that you might not have necessarily considered. Not that it was the case this year, as it turned out to be Greta Gerwig's much anticipated directorial debut, Lady Bird.

In Lady Bird, we follow a year in the life of teenage girl Christine, aka Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her suburban life in Northern California, in the early 2000's.

I have long suspected that Greta Gerwig was the driving force behind the Noah Baumbach films she co-wrote and this more than confirms it. Coming of age films are a common choice for a first film, usually filled with autobiographical elements, but the American director makes it feel fresh. Thanks to the combination of a sharp script and an amazing performance by Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird comes across as a fully rounded, real character. Yes she can be annoying at times, a bit loud, confused, even cruel, but as a result, a world away from one dimensional teenage girls too often seen in films.

Her relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is the angular stone of the film, a very strict and unforgiving mother which at times struggles with communicating with her daughter and showing her some affection. There are spats, misunderstanding, but some love and respect deep inside, no matter how well hidden.

The script is peppered with quotable lines, yet it never feels overwritten, a rare balance, and for her first time as a director, Greta Gerwig shows a natural visual flair. The most interesting aspect of the story however, especially for American film, is its message of celebrating averageness, when virtually every teenage film is about being special, which is somehow even more inspiring as a result!

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