Review – Lady Bird (2017)
Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Timothee Chalamet, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott
It is always great when a potent new cinematic voice announces themselves, but as a female, millenial voice Greta Gerwig’s arrival is particularly timely. Then again, ‘arrival’ may be misleading. Over the last decade Gerwig has established herself as a significant figure in the American independent film scene as an actress and screenwriter, first through her involvement in the emerging Mumblecore movement, and more recently through her collaborations with writer-director Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Mistress America). However, the confidence and maturity of her first solo effort as writer-director, Lady Bird, has seen it transcend its indie status and capture a level of deserved attention that has previously alluded her.
Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to go by Lady Bird, is a senior at Immaculate Heart Catholic girls school in Sacramento who dreams of escaping the city for an east coast college, ”where culture is.” Immaculate Heart is very upper middle class, but Lady Bird attends on a scholarship. The nature of that scholarship is not clear though, as Lady Bird does not appear to be academically, creatively or athletically exceptional. While she and her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) walk longingly through the lush suburban streets discussing which mini-mansion they wish was theirs, Lady Bird lives literally and metaphorically on the wrong side of the tracks in a modest house with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) and father (Tracy Letts), her half-brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott). Her father has recently lost his job so her mother, Marion, a nurse, has taken on extra shifts to make ends meet which brings an extra layer of tension to home life. Lady Bird’s attempt to navigate her senior year involves two romances – with the lovely but ill-suited Danny (Lucas Hedges, who has developed a real knack for showing up in good movies) and the pretentious Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) – and an attempt to upgrade her friends, all while trying to find a way to get herself out of Sacramento.
Where coming of age movies can often be derivative, more interested in commenting on the tropes of coming of age movies than they are about commenting on genuine life experience, Gerwig’s writing and direction has imbued Lady Bird with a fresh sense of authenticity. Her dialogue is sharp and hilarious without being that brand of hyperbolic, Juno-esque wise cracking which, while great to listen to, doesn’t sound like anyone you’ve ever met in a high school. Gerwig’s loosely structured screenplay fleshes out a world by capturing a series of moments rather than an elaborate narrative. We are shown glimpses of interactions and events. Some are relatable and real while others are absurd – early in the film Lady Bird grows so frustrated with an argument she is having with her mother that she throws herself from the moving vehicle. Different supporting characters have their own things going on, glimpses of humour and heartache (eg. Julie’s crush on her maths teacher) which never become fully fledged narrative subplots as our attention always stays with Lady Bird, but the effect of all these snapshots is to bring a sense of depth and specificity to the story world.
Similarly, the approach to period detail involves establishing a the mood of the moment rather than leaning on overbearing, on-the-nose nostalgia beats. The story takes place in 2002 – we have now reached the point where you can have a period film set in the 21st century – which means the cloud of 9/11 and of the pending GFC hangs over the story, but Gerwig doesn’t feel the need to make it the story.
At the centre of the film are two brilliant performances which explore the complexity of the mother-daughter relationship. While parents in coming of age movies are rarely more than narrative obstacles that stand in the way of our protagonist, here the relationship between Lady Bird and Marion is far and away the most significant in the film. Saoirse Ronan is an extraordinary young actress. This performance earned her a third Academy Award nomination and she is only 23 years old. She captures that age of identity wrangling, the small acts of defiance whether it be her dyed hair or the insistence people call her Lady Bird, the insistence that she deserves independence while being woefully unprepared for it, and the cruel dismissal of the life her parents have struggled to provide for her. Ronan has a worth sparring partner in Laurie Metcalf. Better known for her work in television and the theatre, it is a travesty that we have not seen more of Metcalf on the big screen because she is incredible. While undoubtedly possessing and controlling, we understand Marion and empathise with her. We see the ways in which she fails to understand her daughter, but also the ways her daughter fails to understand her. While she has moments of being harshly critical, unlike the mother in I, Tonya, there is absolutely no doubt that she loves her daughter and wants only the best for her. The scenes Ronan and Metcalf share have a beautiful ability to turn on a dime, from combative to caring, or vice versa, in a way that feels honest.
While Gerwig’s Oscar nomination for Best Director was historically notable (she is only the fifth woman to be nominated in that category), it is also pleasing because it is the sort of work which doesn’t usually gets acknowledged. Directors don’t often get the credit they’re due in films which don’t feature impressive set pieces or distinctive design. But this fractionally autobiographical coming of age tale demonstrates a gift for finding the extraordinary in the mundane as Gerwig shares her own unique version of the universal teenage experience. Every generation needs their own coming of age movies, and Lady Bird is one for now.
Review by Duncan McLean
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