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Three movies, one little bald man: emotional honesty in this year’s Oscar race

Three movies that are all about atmosphere and character rather than plot, three highly stylized realities that mirror the struggle of self-discovery

4 minutes


Greta Gerwig‘s Lady Bird, Luca Guadagnino‘s Call Me By Your Name and Martin McDonagh‘s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri: three movies that are all about atmosphere and character rather than plot, three highly stylized realities that mirror the struggle of self-discovery. Three Oscar-nominated movies. But are all of them as accomplished as the Oscars want us to believe?


In 2002, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is an 18-year-old ready to leave behind the less than satisfying intellectual life of her family and welcome an all-new identity in college. In 1983, Elio is a 17-year-old who falls deeply in love with an older man and who discovers many truths about himself in this newfound passion, truths that will help him face the fear of growing up. In 2016, Mildred is a mother forced to live with a terrible loss and who finds strength in her obsessive quest for self-justice in a world that won’t help her and won’t recognize the pain of the meek.


Timothée Chalamet in Call Me By Your Name by Luca Guadagnino © 2017 Warner Bros Italia/Sony Pictures


2017 gave us two movies, Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name, that deal with adolescence in a way that is so graceful, self-ironical, genuine and, despite their apparent simplicity, so visually exquisite that not even the usually traditionally-inclined Oscars could deny them a few key nominations. Two movies that are far from the tropes of American film-making and that sparkling world of televised awards and golden statuettes, but so effective, honest and emotional that rewarding them is almost a moral obligation. It had been a while since the world of film had presented us audiences with works that you can lose yourself into, with plot taking a step back in favor of characters and atmospheres that are powerful enough to take us back in time, to years that appeared to be endless. Of course, it does help that who’s writing these words is the same age as Lady Bird and turned eighteen in 2002, while also remembering the same colours, music, advertisements, clothes from the 1980’s Italy depicted in Call Me By Your Name, along with that childhood sensation that summer days would never end and would never stop being so monotonous.


Two characters, a roller coaster of emotions

The two lead characters (played with abandon by Saoirse Ronan and Timothée Chalamet) navigate between strong and formative emotions and bouts of sheer teenage nonsense, the work of true acrobats of acting. Ronan and Chalamet are capable of slipping body and soul into the most extreme scene and the darkest dialogue, and yet it only takes a movement, a shift of the eyes, a small distraction, and they’re suddenly children again. There are so much purity and wonder in Lady Bird, when our heroine is having strong words with her mother and suddenly, apparently out of the blue, their connection goes back to total complicity when the dress that is just right for the prom is found.
The same purity and enchantment that can be found in a pivotal scene in Call Me By Your Name: Elio and Oliver are about to sleep together for the first time and Elio hilariously breaks the erotic tension that has been building between them when he doesn’t stop the door to his room in time to avoid any kind of noise that might attract his parents, and subsequently goes into a brief and silent tantrum. In both scenes there’s that melodrama that is so youthful and true, those fears and doubts about entering the world of adults, that levity that helps any kid overcoming all that struggle.


Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird by Greta Gerwig © 2017 Universal Pictures International/A24


Three Billboards, a tone-deaf movie

It’s difficult to imagine how anyone could react coldly to those scenes. It’s even more difficult to think that neither of those movies is probably destined to win big at the Oscars. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri seems to be the favourite. A movie that is dangerously ambiguous in its morality and that, even beyond any kind of rightful social discourse, plays as awkward rhetoric, striving to be a witty satire and ending up being predictable at best, disturbing at worst. Not a bad movie, lifted up by some excellent performances (all but Sam Rockwell‘s, who will win the Oscar, while the adorable dads from Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name weren’t even nominated.) Not bad, just tone-deaf: perpetually seeking balance, struggling to keep up between moments of brilliance and lines that not even Clint Eastwood at his worst would have dreamt up.


The voiceless victims of Ebbing, Missouri

On one hand, there’s the story of a racist cop who tortures black people and throws guys out of a window, but who still has a heart of gold. The screenplay, thoroughly convinced that we should care about such a terrible arc, finds a solution in purifying fire and an artificial comment on how to deal with loss, while keeping silent on the paradox of tolerance, shying away from giving victims a real voice and turning a quest for self-justice into a tapestry of clichés about the need of finding common ground. Clichés that make any kind of empathy towards these characters totally impossible. The writing constantly tries to justify them in the most superficial way, without any nuance, avoiding complexity, avoiding real confrontation. The pain they inflict upon others (Mildred’s other child, the young man at the advertisement agency) is barely acknowledged. Those victims exist only to grant forgiveness, which feels undeserved and gives way to only half-baked redemption.


Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Martin McDonagh © 2017 20th Century Fox


The truthfulness of open endings

On the other hand, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson leaves us struggling between our past and our future, dreading the need to face either, baffled by an adult life that she wants to start and still bound to an adolescence she wants to forget and underplay. And Elio, while the apparently balanced life of his parents goes on and they give him space to learn what it means to feel pain, finds that will to smile he had thought lost forever. Two ambiguous endings, only vaguely optimistic, open to the possibility of improvement. Truthful endings that imply that the road towards self-knowledge does not go through big, cathartic events that suddenly justify all our imperfections (both Lady Bird and Elio are gloriously imperfect): it’s a long road, it’s slow and it’s twisty, it takes guts and sweetness and a lot of patience. And, most of all, it takes a whole lifetime.

Ciro Di Lella works as an Art History and Literature teacher in a private school in Rome and freelances as a translator of Young Adult and romance novels (English to Italian) for a publisher based in Brescia. In the past, he has worked as the artistic director for a film club aimed at high-schoolers. He got the film bug when he was in middle school and hasn’t stopped watching and writing about movies ever since. He’s also a voting member of the International Cinephile Society (

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