PFF26 Capsule Reviews: The Square and Lady Bird

Our Philadelphia Film Festival coverage continues! We are excited to be able to bring you several reviews from this year’s festival. Follow us on Twitter to keep up with the latest!

The Square (Dir. Ruben Ostlund)

A theme of this year’s European films playing at the festival is the growing refugee crisis- and the ever widening gap between the haves and the have nots. The haves of course, are not all bad people. Yet so often their progressive worldviews are based in words instead of action. Those of us who are privileged like to think we care- yet when we are personally tested by the divides of society, are we going to call upon our benevolent humanity, or are we going to lash out to keep others in their place?

Ruben Ostlund’s (Force Majeure) Palme D’Or winning feature is his first set partially in english and with western actors (Elisabeth Moss, Dominic West, and Terry Notary show up in fairly brief roles). It is probably going to make a bigger splash than anything he has done so far- and he uses the opportunity of a bigger stage to show us the withering soul of an EU that has been stretched extra thin as of late.

Christian (Claes Bang) is a museum curator in Stockholm working on promoting an upcoming exhibit called “The Square.” While gliding through a busy commuter crowd, he gets his phone and wallet swiped. His shock at having been victimized sends Christian on a journey into the world of the have-nots, looking to retrieve the stolen items. Of course he could simply buy a new phone and spend less than an hour cancelling his credit cards- it is a pain, but it certainly takes less time than taking matters into your own hands. But for Christian, this is not just about getting back a wallet and a phone- it is about having been duped by people he is supposed to be better than. He seems out to set the class order back in its correct place. Ironically so, this distracts him from his high falutin’ exhibit preparation about helping the less fortunate. His obsession with justice sets events into motion which spiral downward in hilarious fashion.

The Square plays like if Michael Haneke’s Cache was a dark comedy set in the contemporary Scandinavian art world. Ostlund shares Haneke’s penchant for skewering rich people whose care for others goes only as far as its ability to make them feel better about themselves. Yet he does so with a biting sense of humor. The Square maintains a medium high level roast of the high art world through all 142 minutes of its running time. I laughed hard and often. When the credits roll, as in the ending of Force Majeure, we see an entitled white man has learned a lesson about just how selfish he is, and has attempted to act on it. Whether or not it’s too late for that to make a difference is a little up in the air. The final shot though, tells us where Ostlund thinks humanity ends up, regardless of the lessons we have learned.

It could stand to be about twenty minutes shorter, but I found The Square to be a fantastic follow up to Force Majeure, and perhaps even an improvement on the auteur’s world weary brand of satire.

The Square will also be showing on Thursday, October 26 at 6:50 PM at the Ritz East.

Lady Bird (Dir. Greta Gerwig)

Actress and writer Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Greenberg, 20th Century  Women) makes her directorial debut with this semi autobiographical tale of a girl’s senior year of high school. Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular Lady Bird- but whose real name is Christine. She demands to be referred to by her new self-given name, just like she demands that every perception of her match up with how she would like to be seen. She is selfish, a little annoying, with a stunted worldview- like most teenagers. Lady Bird, er, Christine, just owns it a lot more. Yet where most teen rebel narratives involve the protagonist having their defiance validated, Lady Bird is a story about a teen rebel who learns to trust- and even love- the very institutions she used to fight against.

Right off the bat, the movie gets going with a breathless pace and editing style. Lady Bird is starting her final year of high school in the fall of 2002, attending a catholic school in Sacramento, CA (“the midwest of California”). This is not a new girl narrative- most aspects of her life are already in place and we are plopped right into the middle of it. Yet as her time in Sacramento draws closer to its end every day- she wants to go far away for college- she begins trying new things. She goes out for the musical. She takes a couple jobs. She takes on a new best friend. She realizes an appreciation for a certain white male singer songwriter who is profoundly uncool. She wonders aloud to head nun (Lois Smith) about why she never knew about the school musical before- and the nun responds that she had never been really involved in the school’s community until now.

Senior year is a last ditch opportunity for reinvention- I could absolutely relate to her journey, as I suddenly found myself a lot more invested in my school right as I was about to leave it. She also falls for a couple of boys, smokes weed, gets the munchies, goes to shows, goes to parties, has sexual experiences, and everything else that makes for a solid senior year. Yet Lady Bird is not about how awesome and fun her life is- it’s about a young girl learning to pay attention to her own surroundings- as she prepares to leave the nest, maybe for good.

The film reminded me of the Howard Hawks screwball comedies of the 40’s and 50’s. Its frenetic pace and quippy dialogue could only be outdone by something like His Girl Friday. Yet for a story with so much sentiment, this can feel like an odd match at times. There is also no real audience surrogate, which made it feel a little inaccessible at first. Yet it was hard not to be won over eventually, once you find the rhythm. Especially when so many markers of the early 2000’s are there. I muttered “Oh My God” to myself whenever a character wearing a shell necklace appeared, or ska music began to play, or when someone is criticized for driving a gas guzzling SUV. It made me feel a little old, but also made me feel like I was watching my own senior year pass before my eyes again.

I liked the movie quite a bit, but I am not sure I loved it. I am certainly on the lower end of the praise spectrum here. Yet I can’t wait to see it again at some point, which is always a good sign.

Up Next: Holy Air, Most Beautiful Island, Under The Tree, Let The Corpses Tan

Author: Andy Elijah

I am a musician and music therapist who loves movies too. Raised in Maryland, I have been proud to call Philadelphia home for five years. Sounds can be heard at Baker Man and Drew. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *