Ladybird Ladybird opens with actor Crissy Rock’s character “Maggie” giving the performance of a lifetime: her version of Bette Midler’s “The Rose”. “Maggie” is giving this performance everything she’s got. What the audience sees is a dynamically-moving, weary-eyed delivery of this (let’s face it) kind of corny old song. Rock too is giving the performance of a lifetime, showing the spectator everything they need to know about this character in the span of just a few well-chosen moments. That is if they are paying attention. “Maggie” exists in the minutiae of Ken Loach’s deceptively realistic world as presented on screen.
No other director has become so synonymous with the working class as Loach, yet his films retain a fairytale-like quality that works almost in direct opposition to his dedication to authenticity. In films such as Ladybird Ladybird these elements work together seamlessly, woven together by Rock’s daring, risky turn. “Maggie” is a real woman, a believable, three-dimensional creation, and Rock is not just an actress pretending to be one. Her own background, filled with startling abuse insured the kind of authenticity that viewers had come to expect from a Loach film.
Singing “The Rose”, you see the character’s disappointment and pain, her vivaciousness, her sturdiness and her tumultuousness. You also see her goodness alongside the darkness. “When the night has been too lonely, and the night has been too long. And you think that love is only for the lucky or the strong”, “Maggie” sings. Rock intimates that it is every British girl’s dream to be an “English rose”, and Maggie’s bloom has long been lost to a deadly early frost. Despite false starts and glimmers of hope, we can almost immediately sense that “Maggie”’s dream is forever lost and her future isn’t so rosy. Her future will be full of hardships and heartbreaks, it has been sadly mapped out for her and she is just trying to get through each moment as it comes (sadly ironic as the film’s title references a brightly-colored insect that is commonly viewed as a sign of good luck). This is a painful realization all around. After a series of what might most kindly be described as “bad life choices”, “Maggie” is making the most of it. She’s not beaten down or deflated, she retains a childlike sense of buoyancy and optimism that should have crumbled long ago given what she’s had to endure.
She tells her prospective new beau “Jorge” (Vladimir Vega) that she has four kids, by four different fathers casually and without shame or hesitation within five minutes of their first meeting. Loach uses this meeting as a series of framing devices that elegantly tell her story in flashback. “I don’t remember much about being little,” she tells Jorge, as Loach inserts perfectly-edited images of her playing as a young girl into the narrative. This delicately-rendered moment tells us two things about “Maggie”: number one is that she doesn’t “remember much about being little” hints to the spectator that there was trauma and abuse during this period of her life, and number two that in many ways she has never actually grown up, or been allowed to blossom into the person she should have. “Maggie” has distinctly infantile flights of fury, irrational crying jags, temper tantrums and illogical behaviors that one might find in a young child. She has a problem with impulse control and a problem with fully understanding the dire consequences of her own negative actions. Instinct governs her thought processes.
Again, this is only five minutes into Ladybird Ladybird, a film that becomes an intimate, unsparing look at the life of a British woman in a downward spiral for nearly her entire life, where it seems like almost everyone and everything is against her when it comes to being in control of her life and her children. “Maybe I’ll get them back, maybe I won’t”, she tells her new friend after letting him know all four of her kids have been placed into foster care. There is a searing-hot emotional edge to Rock’s delivery of this line. You can’t tell if she is indifferent, broken, furious or simply in shock and trying to muddle through. There is an ambiguity and mysteriousness to “Maggie” that archetypal “mother” characters are often too scared to tackle. Loach gives his viewer the tools to construct their own narrative vision by handing out a breadcrumb trail of little clues in almost every single line of dialog, even when it feels like a throwaway. Like her, pity her or despise her, Loach hands it over to the audience to make their own judgments. Just when the director, with these initial, densely-layered scenes of dramatic buildup, seems to be going in a bleakly unsentimental direction, he changes the film’s inertia and shifts the tone, albeit briefly, into a charming, doomed romantic fable.
Every single directorial choice, and every choice of the film’s leading lady, are unexpected in every sense. Anchored by Rock’s transformative, transfixing every twist, every curve is thrilling to watch. Loach asks Rock to go to places most actors can only dream of. Mercurial highs and savage lows, down in the dirt, stung by laying on a bed of thorns, the luscious, passionate kiss of the spring’s first blooming red rose and the final brittle chill as the buds break in the cold; Rock does it all in this role. With a haunted, faraway look in her eyes, Rock plays “Maggie” as a woman just trying to survive in a world that would just as soon see her sterilized and/or euthanized like an alley cat. She is viewed as less than human by her government, by her neighbors, as a monster basically, but this begs the question: why are all of those people in the government, in the media, and most insidiously, in her own community, spending so much time and energy trying to control one woman’s body, life and fate?
In a stunning second karaoke sequence, set brilliantly to country singer Lynn Anderson’s 1970 hit “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” (with lyrics like “you don’t find roses growin’ on stalks of clover. So you better think it over.”), Loach reveals why “Maggie”’s kids were taken away. She locked them in a room so she could go out and a fire in the building nearly killed them all and one is severely burned because of her sheer thoughtlessness (the film’s title, taken from the nursery rhyme of the same name is directly-referenced here “ladybird, ladybird, fly away home, your house is on fire and your children are gone”). Rock’s tortured reaction scene at the hospital, when she learns of what has happened (and the consequences of her decision to leave them alone), is unforgettable. How the cycles of abuse and poverty can conspire against people and rain down unbelievably bad luck on people like “Maggie” is unflaggingly, infuriatingly depicted during this segment of the film. When you are deep into the poetic-realist textures painted by Loach, it is almost impossible to see a happy ending for “Maggie”, especially when we she keeps making terrible decisions based on her own destructively childlike whims that sabotage her good intentions at every turn.
Perhaps the point then is to undo the indoctrination of cinema viewers to expect a happy ending in the first place, or to “expect” anything at all from a movie. The unexpected, as highlighted in Ladybird Ladybird is much more exciting to watch. As the song she’s singing when we first meet her says, “just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snows, lies the seed that with the sun’s love, in the spring becomes the rose”. Perhaps this is Loach’s way of telling his viewer that, yes, poverty and abuse may have their respective cycles, but so do resilient flowers.