Lady Bird (15)

Greta Gerwig

The Shape of Water (15)

Guillermo del Toro

IT was only a matter of time before the great comic actress Greta Gerwig started directing. Gerwig has often co-scripted her films, notably Frances Ha and Mistress America, and the combination of naturalism and affectation in her performances clearly starts on the page. In other words, she has her own, distinctive perspective. And in Lady Bird that perspective transforms a familiar coming-of-age template into something individual and beguiling. As directorial debuts ago, this is dazzling.

Gerwig opens with a quote from the journalist and writer Joan Didion: “Anyone who talks about Californian hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento.” Her heroine, 17-year-old Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), seems to have taken that sentiment very much to heart.

Christine is busting to be different. She’s given herself a ridiculous new name, Lady Bird, and looks down on the day-to-day life of her Catholic school. And now, despite iffy grades and impecunious parents, she resists the natural step to a local college for a costlier move to the east coast.

She and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are constantly at war. A hard-working nurse at a psychiatric hospital, Marion bemoans her daughter’s ingratitude and foolishness; yet she herself is not good at showing love. It could be that the pair are too alike. So, Christine’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) plays peacekeeper, despite his own problems.

“I wish I could live through something,” Christine exclaims early on, and the film’s motor is her effort to do just that – to fall in love, lose her virginity, become a musical sensation, get out of Sacramento. She can be selfish, disrespectful and rude, yet also sassy and funny. Ronan brilliantly manages that balance, with Metcalf and Letts expertly supporting her star turn.

The film is full of golden moments: the school musical, a bonding moment over The Grapes Of Wrath, the sports coach trying to teach drama, a number of tender reconciliations. The wisdom and wit of the writing is a given, the racy direction a revelation.

WITH his best films, Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone, the Mexican Guillermo del Toro cleverly combines fantasy with the horror of the real world. His latest, one of this year’s Oscar favourites, falls into this category. A fairy tale set during the Cold War, The Shape Of Water makes del Toro seem like a magician.

It’s 1962. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) may be mute and alone, but she has a big heart and a pragmatic core that put her in good stead as the heroine of this strange tale. Alongside the protective Zelda (Octavia Spencer) she works as a cleaner in a high-security government laboratory, whose latest “asset” is a humanoid amphibian – a sort of Creature from the Black Lagoon – brought to the States from South America by brutal government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). The Americans see a potential weapon against the Russians; Elisa simply falls in love.

A busy plot includes an attempt to free the creature, the romantic disappointment and intolerance experienced by Elisa’s gay friend Giles (Richard Jenkins), the suggestion that Strickland is a metaphorical monster created by the times, the machinations of a Russian spy and the mechanics of love and sex between a woman and a fish-man.

It’s debatable whether this needs to be quite as violent as it is (the sadistic Strickland’s weapon of choice is a cattle prod). But the craft is impeccable, the imagination unquestionable, and at the heart of the film Hawkins is wondrous as the “princess without a voice”. The Brit’s extraordinarily expressive face makes dialogue unnecessary; in the silent era she would have been a superstar.