Director: Greta Gerwig
Screenplay: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith
Runtime: 93 Minutes
It says a great deal about films that are able to give wide-ranging audiences an understanding approximating the emotions and experiences of a very specific life that appears alien to their own. Many people are not and never will be a teenage girl, especially one growing up in Sacramento, California in 2002. Yet, Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut Lady Bird manages to do exactly this.
Although a using the coming-of-age story of Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) as the spine of its narrative, Gerwig’s wonderfully sweet film about growing up places you in the abrasive shoes of a flawed young woman but says as much about its setting and climate as it does about her own evolution into adulthood.
In many respects, Lady Bird (a name given to herself by herself) is as huffy and entitled as any young person at such a point in the 21st century. Entitled and self-satisfied with pretensions of becoming an art student in a college on the east coast “where culture is”, and a wannabe ‘rebel without a cause’ with little to rebel about or face punishment for in a Catholic high school. She is an example of so many like her raised with the privilege of living in the first world, with family and friends and a roof over her head, but she’s also strikingly similar to the young adult audiences watching in so many ways.
The film doesn’t really follow a structure so much as it drifts through vignettes as she moulds herself around social circles and individuals to her immediate liking, or who she at least believes she likes and might offer her an outlet to seem deeper and more interesting than she actually is. She throws herself into situations she might not follow through on with her closest friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and see her react in ways that are so sympathetic and relatable when things inevitably begin to turn on her as her visions of idealism are let down by herself and those she affiliates herself with.
Take the two young men who enter her life one after the other. Wholesome Danny O'Neill (Lucas Hedges) who seems like a perfect companion until her own conflicting desires of sexuality enter the frame, and nihilist Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet) who is introduced smoking a cigarette and decrying the establishment while still living comfortably in the world it has given him. Both of them expose her to different forms of sexuality and expression, as well as the complexities of their own lives and the underwhelming efforts of her first sexual experiences.
Aside from these expressions, and the way in which Lady Bird callously throws aside her roots and identity at a whim for the admiration of strangers for a fleeting moment at a party, its backdrop of an America post-9/11 endows a sense of mood that feels very singular. There’s a nostalgia there as the sounds of Dave Matthews Band and Alanis Morissette play out over specific points, but its picture of the suburban U.S. at a point before the financial collapse – as well as the heat of the Afghanistan conflict which blares in the background on television screens – that brings the McPherson family to the forefront.
The whole time Lady Bird fantasises about her aspirations for a cultured life in the city, her family struggles as mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) works a demanding nursing job and her father Larry (Tracy Letts) is laid off and coping with depression behind closed doors. The apparent shame Lady Bird feels concerning her family’s financial state and the house they live in feels emblematic of not just a state of mind and condition, but the embarrassment felt by anyone her age by not allowing friends and partners too close to those who know her best.
It’s the small asides that the film chooses to show us, such as Larry’s interview with a tech conglomerate who feel he is too old as her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) goes in for the same job, or the site of Julie inexplicably crying or stroking her name on the cast list of a school play that fills them with personality and depth that Lady Bird might never give were she the one telling the story.
Much is to be thankful for the fact that Greta Gerwig is the one telling it instead. This is the work of a master of the craft who has studied from productions for a while, and her skill here at making something memorable and moving – as well as utterly hilarious – out of this story is warmed by Sam Levy’s pleasing cinematography. It feels like something whittled down from a larger whole into something more workable, but it only adds layers to its understanding of her mindset as a writer (and now incredibly talented director).
Gerwig’s empathy for Lady Bird feels personal and familiar, but it’s her fascination with the messy love story going on between mother and daughter that captivates the most. The arguments that boil over thanks to Lady Bird’s overdramatic ways and Marion’s matter-of-factness feel all too real at points even without the context of their situations.
There’s a silent devastation to moments such as where Marion refuses to acknowledge or speak to her daughter as Lady Bird pleads for her to speak, and words left unsaid as the film moves into its final scenes and they may face a prolonged separation from one another. It’s their reliability as their heated arguments are broken by a shared appreciation for a dress they have found, or sharing tears over an audiobook on a long car journey that makes their connection stand out.
Saoirse Ronan is always a remarkable screen presence even without her dyed red hair and outfit choices, but she really sells the emotional beats, humour and sardonic quips better than anyone her age. Her chemistry with the splendid Laurie Metcalf is what draws you further into its story, as does a subdued but poignant performance from Tracy Letts. Beanie Feldstein is extremely likeable, Lucas Hedges is a humane joy while Timothée Chalamet is delightfully hittable as the smug rogue of her later affections, rounded off by brilliant supporting roles from Stephen McKinley Henderson and Lois Smith.
Lady Bird works on familiar foundations, but the way it approaches its subject and period make it stand out as much as its wonderful and engaging performances. There’s a love behind Gerwig’s execution, a humour to its sincerity and a beauty in its sentiment that stays behind with you after its soul-baring final scenes.