Written and directed by: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges
In 2002, an artistically inclined seventeen-year-old girl comes of age in Sacramento, California.
Runtime: 1h 34m
American coming of age films are ten-a-penny. Or, a dime-a-dozen. Add the “teenage misfit wants to escape small hometown” element and that Venn diagram’s a single circle. Lady Bird manages to stand out from the throng of Rushmores, Breakfast Clubs and the like thanks to first-time writer/director Greta Gerwig’s sympathy towards absurd adolescent desires and delusions, and a particularly keen ear for the hair-trigger relationship between teenagers and their parents.
The opening scene is a perfect example. Saoirse Ronan’s titular high schooler (well, she was born Christine, but she gave herself her “given name”) is in the car with her mum (Laurie Metcalf), on the way back from visiting a local college. They’re quietly weeping to the end of a book-on-tape reading of The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a very intimate, sweet moment between a mother and a daughter. Within a few lines of dialogue, however, they’ve gotten into a screaming match which culminates in Lady Bird flinging herself out of the moving vehicle.
Don’t worry, the movie doesn’t end there, or else become a In The Bedroom-style meditation on parental grief. Ronan just has to wear a bright-pink cast on her broken arm for the majority of the film, which runs through all the major milestones typical of the genre (and typical of an American adolescence, one supposes): school dances, first kiss, first boyfriend, losing her virginity, having to decide between her outsider best friend and joining the in-crowd, anxiety over university, getting a crummy summer job, performing in a school play.
There’s a specificity to all of these expected tropes, however, and above all a striking amount of heart and empathy towards all of the characters, no matter how broad. You even end up rooting for a gym coach drafted in to direct the play on school notice, attempting to understand theatrical blocking through the medium of orchestrating a football play.
The film may follow an expected arc, but Gerwig’s writing coupled with the performances (especially Ronan and Metcalf’s) ensure the 2002-era Sacramento on-screen never feels like an artifice.
There are unusual twists in the tale, from the unexpected outing of a major character and an even more unexpected reaction from Lady Bird, to a brief subplot involving one of the teachers at her Catholic school which is quietly heartbreaking. It’s the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother which is the real draw, though, as complex and thorny as any in real life.
Lady Bird is playing in the UK with a trailer for I, Tonya before it, which includes an excerpt of a scene where Margot Robbie and Alison Janney’s characters go back-and-forth on their own volatile history. Janney contends that she made sacrifices for her daughter, Robbie insists she cursed her. It’s a particularly artless exchange where the actors on screen essentially speak their feelings and positions aloud, completely free of subtext.
Its lack of nuance appears even more basic when placed in direct contrast to the mother and daughter relationship in Gerwig’s film, where mutual ground is frequently ceded in place of passive-aggression, in arguments and lectures, where Metcalf frequently vocalises the struggles of her and her husband (Tracy Letts doing some fine work) to provide for their family, acutely aware of their precarious economic position compared to the more affluent members of their Californian community.
Ronan’s character does state her wants and desires, from wanting to escape her hometown to an East Coast college where “culture is” to sleeping with the local hipster boy (Timothée Chalamet having a lot of fun as a very recognisable type, all tousled hair and practised enigmatic stoicism), but that’s what teenagers do. They think it’s that easy. But the adult world is always floating on the periphery of the final months leading up to Lady Bird’s high school graduation, wobbling the barriers of her idealised worldview without ever causing them to come crashing down fully.
Gerwig is best known as a performer herself, having made her name as the “Queen of Mumblecore” during the nascent indie scene’s early days. She then went on to have a fruitful collaboration with creative and romantic partner Noah Baumbach, acting in and co-writing the scripts for Frances Ha and Mistress America. Her first feature as solo director, disappointingly, failed to pick up any gongs at this year’s Oscars, but perhaps that’s because her work behind the camera isn’t especially “flashy.”
It’s often said that the Academy tends to award films that feature the “most” of any given category, more than the best; the “most” directing, the “most” acting, and so on. In which case the subtlety of Gerwig’s work may have been lost, when it’s the space she gives to her cast, the generosity she feels towards the characters and the locations they inhabit which is the film’s great strength.
Working in concert with her script, no doubt drawing on her own experience growing up in Sacramento — the soundtrack includes era-appropriate hits like Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River,” Gerwig having secured the rights by contacting the musicians with personal notes about how important their songs were to her adolescence — Lady Bird is the familiar teen movie given a greater emotional weight and verisimilitude than we’re used to, without losing any of the comedy, bathos or aesthetically-pleasing musical montages inherent to the genre.