The Pain of Fathers and Daughters
by

Steve Carell has often said the way to deal with hardship is through humor. The man we know from The Office certainly knows how to make you laugh, but those projects were hardly serious or painful, setting aside the famous chest wax in The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

As the title suggests, Last Flag Flying is no comedy. But there is a lot of laughter in this road movie/buddy drama, the latest effort by Richard Linklater. The director’s brilliant Boyhood was followed last year by Everybody Want Some!, a film you probably never heard of, and with good reason. But now the laid-back Texan is back with a well-tailored movie about the grief of a father whose son has been killed in action in Iraq.

There are many Gold Star families all over the country. So when Carell and Linklater, who also co-wrote the script, try to capture what it means to lose a child in war, it is a tricky assignment. Of course, every family feels a unique pain about losing a son, daughter, brother, sister, father, or mother. But since those left behind don’t often show up on the big screen — not as the lead in a major motion picture — the men in this film carry a responsibility to get it right during a time when this country is still very much at war with the Islamist enemy.

Carell plays Larry ‘Doc’ Shepherd, a soft-spoken guy who goes looking for his old friends after getting the news of his son’s death. He first tracks down Sal (Bryan Cranston), a bartender as witty and extraverted as Doc is earnest and introverted. We learn they are buddies who lost touch after serving in Vietnam. Together they track down Richard (the excellent Laurence Fishburne), now a minister.

This odd threesome retrieves the son’s body in his coffin and insist on taking it on a road trip for burial near his home. With the help of Private Washington (a very good young actor named J. Quinton Johnson), the road trip commences. Old and new traumas are explored while the men get into some entertaining trouble along the way. The three get into tough conversations and arguments, but they also find again what connected them. Cranston plays the group’s clown, and he overdoes it. But Carell is beautiful to watch as the devastated father who needs the friendship and jokes of his old friends.

The powerful final scenes are truly moving. I think Gold Star families will appreciate the way this father’s grief is portrayed on screen. We are at war, and the film — engaged but not overtly political — shows respect for the ultimate sacrifice and its consequences. For that, Linklater and Carell deserve credit.

As an actress Greta Gerwig has been in movies that always deserve the moniker ‘quirky.’ Some were bad, some good, but they had something in common. Greenberg, Frances Ha, 20th Century Women were small films about complicated families and individuals. Usually the funniest character was Gerwig’s. The Sacramento-born actress has a disarming quality. With her helpless smile she looks more innocent than she turns out to be in her films.

Now she has written and directed her first feature, Lady Bird, which is also about the messy business of family life. It is better than anything she has appeared in. That is not to say she’s a bad actress. It’s just that she has made a special movie, in which she does not act. And directing a self-written quality film is a feat on a whole other level than appearing in one.

The title character played by the terrific, ever better Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) has a real name: Christine. She just doesn’t like it. Just like her dyed red hair, the nickname signifies a mild, or lame, kind of rebellion. Against her stagnant middle-class life, her rigid mother, the challenges of high school in 2003. Against herself, it seems — many teenagers and their parents may find a lot to recognize in Lady Bird.

The film follows her during senior year in a Sacramento high school. That will sound familiar and even boring, but the film offers a new and exquisite take on the age-old question of how to grow up. Gerwig’s writing is both crisp and deep, something new entirely.

The movie begins with an epic, one-take, rollicking opening scene. The girl and her mother are driving, happily chatting and singing at first. Then the mood turns fast. They fight and the scene explodes into a daring act by Lady Bird. We are off and the story then unfolds at a leisurely pace. In the family’s house on the wrong side of the tracks — literally — she battles her adopted brother and tough mother while seeking solace with her kind-hearted father. They are played with great subtlety by Laurie Metcalf (the theater actress now back in the return of Roseanne) and Tracy Letts (playwright and character actor extraordinaire.) With a couple of close friends by her side she makes poor choices in her Catholic school, the tuition of which forces her parents to work long hours and live paycheck to paycheck.

The dialogue in Lady Bird is witty and sparse, but enough. As Lady Bird talks to her mother and the principal of her Catholic school, casual observations reveal the depths of Gerwig’s mind. Lady Bird is desperate to escape Sacramento. But in her college application she gushes about the city, which the principal, a great role by Lois Smith, points out. It’s a surprise, since Lady Bird seems to despise her home town. You actually love it, the principal says. The girl wonders out loud: “I guess I pay attention.” The principal asks: “Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” That little back-and-forth reminded me of a book title, Listening Is an Act of Love. Gerwig suggests paying attention is loving, too. Viewers paying attention will pick up on many such observations and questions.

Another strength: this film contains limited exposition. There are no unnecessary explanations of who is who and why, assuming the viewer is smart, not dumb, as many directors seem to think. You will laugh and cry, often during the same scene. None of this feels manipulated. Of course it is. Every film that makes you feel is fundamentally manipulating us into reacting with emotion. But the intelligence of the script makes it seem natural.

This is a perfect little movie, ultimately about the question what home really means. A girl gets ready to leave her family for the East Coast: it’s a simple plot. But when the characters — and the music — are this good, jewels can be found in simplicity.

Lady Bird and Last Flag Flying are rated R. Both films open Friday, November 3, in wide release.

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