Director: Greta Gerwig
Screenwriter: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Tracy Letts, and Odeya Rush
A weird thing happened at the end of the new movie Lady Bird from first time director, Greta Gerwig. The lights came up in the theater and I heard a woman say, “Well, that was weird.” Then another person whispered, “That’s not what I thought it was going to be.” Lastly, someone else just said, “Artistic,” but in a dismissive way. Meanwhile, I sat there silent, listening to these strange criticisms while reflecting on how Gerwig was able to steal so many aspects and events from my life and just put it out there like that. Isn’t that plagiarism? I guess there are a few differences between the character Lady Bird and me. I was a good student, I didn’t have any siblings, oh and I call myself Gentleman Bird, but after that it gets pretty murky.
Saoirse Ronan plays the titular character, a confused high school student from Sacramento, California, who is desperate for a change, but is still pretty confused about who she is in the first place. In fact, Lady Bird’s given name is Christine, but she decided to rename herself Lady Bird, perhaps just to emphasize to the audience that she’s having a bit of an identity crisis. The year is 2002, and Lady Bird is in the midst of some pure adolescent angst. Her relationship with her parents, principally her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), can be described as strained at best, and the weight and eventuality of adulthood is weighing heavily down on her.
The film casually follows Lady Bird as she traverses her seminal senior year at her Catholic high school, which she attends at a great cost from her parents who while hard-working are not financially secure. Lady Bird is ashamed of her status and dreams of the day when she lives in the big house, has adventures, receives opportunity, and lives sophisticatedly. The problem for Lady Bird and the one she grapples with most throughout the film is that she has done nothing to warrant or really deserve any of those things. What’s more, her private Sacramento Catholic high school is filled with other kids who have done nothing to deserve those things…and yet they have them. The one thing Lady Bird does have going for her is an innate artistic spirit that is picked up on by her nun teacher Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith). Sister Sarah Joan encourages Lady Bird to take that spirit and apply it to the school theatre program, which she does along with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and Danny (Lucas Hedges), a young man, Lady Bird finds attractive.
That’s the gist of the film. It’s really rather typical in terms of its story, but there are some bits of brilliance that do move the “coming of age” film needle. Lady Bird owes a lot to the sensibilities of predecessors like Juno, The Bling Ring, and most of all Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film, Ghost World. All of these films take a different perspective at youth culture and its influences. They all attempt in their own way to diagnose what has lead to the overwhelming degradation in the aspirations of young people, and guess what, the young people are rarely the most to blame. Yes, what this film adds to the mix is a cutting and complex portrayal of the parent/child dynamic. In retrospect, the opening scene of the film (which I think runs the gamut of human emotion all within the course of two minutes) prepares the audience for this tumultuous relationship, and as this thread develops, it grounds the film and makes it more significant. Metcalf’s portrayal of Marion may be the stand-out performance in a film with several other stand-out performances. She is likely the name we’ll hear most associated with this film come Oscar time, and if not, Marion’s character is certainly the one who is left rattling around in my head at the end.
Lady Bird is not a perfect movie, and it’s not a groundbreaking movie. It is, however, excellent at what it does, and it is very easy to like. Even those people who left the theater with me who were caught off guard by Lady Bird, most likely liked the movie. This is probably because unlike many mainstream films, Lady Bird has several different methodologies that an audience can take away. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a religious parable, it’s a family drama, it’s a love story, it’s a story about rejection and acceptance, about friendship, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It is also a film that positions writer/director Greta Gerwig as one of the foremost emerging storytellers in cinema. B+
Lady Bird is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.