Lady Bird is an exquisitely written, directed and performed coming-of-ager that focuses on a final year high school student’s relationship with her mother during her metamorphosis from adolescent to young adult. Sweet, sad, funny and poignant.
Lady Bird is indie darling Greta Gerwig’s first film as writer/director, and it’s a doozy. As with many debuts the material is largely autobiographical. In the hands of inexperienced dramatists, ‘real life’ often doesn’t transition smoothly to fictionalised modes, but Gerwig’s years in the movie industry on screen and off (ie: in writing collaborations) show out here. Her writing is nothing short of exquisite.
The talented cast thrives as a result. I can’t single out any of the main cast members – Saoirise Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracey Letts – as standouts. They’re all note-perfect. Actually, there are no bum notes from any performer.
I was too immersed to notice the technical, cinematographic or directorial particulars. I’ll just say I loved the film, and that all elements worked wonderfully well for me.
The setting is Sacramento, California, 1992. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is an arty young woman in her final year of high school. She’s trying to determine and assert her identity, values and career direction, not to mention explore her sexuality in the midst of a storm of hormones. In other words, like teenagers since the beginning of time she is going through the wars as she metamorphoses from adolescent to young adult.
So is her poor mother (Laurie Metcalf), who struggles to keep a handle on her daughter’s moods and to guide her in her choices. It doesn’t help that both of them are volatile and headstrong. The changing relationship between mother and daughter, beautifully negotiated by Ronan and Metcalf, is the primary focus of the film, and a dramatic triumph for Gerwig. Their interactions ring so true.
Indeed, this sense of authenticity is one of the aspects that sets Lady Bird apart from the vast majority of coming-of-agers.
There’s nothing new here. We’ve seen it all before – the renegotiation of primary family relationship terms as the child fights for independence (hence Christine insisting on being called “Lady Bird”), first drug and sexual encounters, tussles with school authorities, ditching long-term friends for a place among the in-crowd, yearning to flee home for the bright lights and promise of a Big City…
In Gerwig’s deft hands, all this stuff seems fresh, vibrant, real. And there’s a dramatic expansiveness here that goes far beyond the adolescent viewpoint.
Almost all the characters are treated with empathy and sympathy: Lady Bird’s wise, funny and thoroughly lovely dad (Tracey Letts), who has lost his job and suffers depression in secret; her loyal bestie Julie (Beanie Feldstein), whom she temporarily dumps for a vacuous rich girl; the delightful head nun at her Catholic high school, who sees the funny side in a student prank (“Just Married to Jesus” signs are affixed to the back of her car)…
As an aside, I have to say it is refreshing to see nun and priest teachers depicted in a sympathetic light. It is a mark of Gerwig’s maturity as a writer/director that she resists the anti-Church stance that has become all-but-obligatory today. Fuck, not ALL nuns are dried-up sadistic bitches; not ALL priests are pedos.
That said, Gerwig is not a Christian apologist. For instance, a pro-life advocate who lectures the students on the evils of abortion cops an hilarious putdown from Lady Bird. It’s hard not to cheer.
The in-crowd also comes in for some ironic treatment. Fair enough, too – they’re generally arseholes. Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) does a good job of his role as a cool, pretentious, downbeat muso with his nose eternally stuck in some hip book.
Enough analysis. Here’s the guts of why Lady Bird is so good, and deservedly nominated for a swag of awards at the 2018 Oscars.
- A warming humanity runs through it from first frame to last.
- The characters work brilliantly. They have depth. They seem real. And the actors respond accordingly.
- Gerwig’s screenplay is superb. She never goes for the “clever” line. She keeps her ego out of it. All the dialogue sounds natural, while performing multiple functions, such as giving insight into character or relationships, or moving the narrative forward; the screenwriter’s presence is never conspicuous.
- Most importantly for me, Lady Bird has heart. It’s funny, sad, poignant, emotionally alive and pulsing. You understand the characters and relate to them. You FEEL.
I’ve been hot and cold on Gerwig until now. I have underrated her. Going by the evidence here she’s abundantly gifted as a writer/director. Indeed, her future may well be behind the camera rather than in front of it.
Movie Website: http://www.ladybirdmovie.com.au/
Australian release date: Lady Bird in Australian cinemas from Feb 9, 2018
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