Indie darling Greta Gerwig breathes life into directorial “debut” (she co-directed Nights and Weekends in 2008) Lady Bird with passion and pathos. Gerwig’s strong freshman feature strikes a balance between the mumblecore sensibilities of frequent collaborators Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach while bringing a refreshingly anarchical female voice into the choir. Lady Bird as a character and film manages both tenderness and lawlessness; caught in the confuddling mix of teenage hormones and perceived oppressive parenting; rebelling against the grain, oft to her own detriment; Gerwig’s capable filmmaking expertly capturing that claustrophobic feeling of teenage angst and insurgency; Saorsie Ronan performing the hell out of the role.
Reeking of autobiography, Gerwig thrives following the golden rule of the pen. Write what you know. Hailing for Sacramento, attending an all-girls Catholic school, traversing across the coast for the Big Apple in 2002, these are all landmarks plucked from Gerwig’s own life, shackles and memories for Saorsie Ronan’s titular character Christine McPherson, who prefers the self-imposed nomenclature “Lady Bird”, to contend with.
Gerwig presents an atypical coming of age story through the lens of a shaky mother-daughter relationship and in its specificity is planted a germ of universality. We can all relate to the general sense of butting heads with our biological creator and Lady Bird and mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who is described by one character as “warm but also kind of scary”, are about as polar opposite as they come, even through their many similarities.
Lady Bird explores the plurality of this relationship from the first scene where tight-laced mother and liberal-leaning daughter share a tear over an audio book of “The Grapes of Wrath” before getting into an argument over culture and city college and jail, which leads Lady Bird, a nickname Marion uses mostly with distain, to chuck herself from the moving vehicle. If we’ve all wanted to escape an annoying conversation with our parents at some point, Lady Bird proves from the get-go she is willing to go the distance.
There is a bitterness to their relationship that haunts the film and the characters; this seeming irreconcilability a vast mountain of miscommunicated good intent. When Lady Bird reaches out to her mom seeking wisdom on being sexually active, Marion lashes accusations about her promiscuity. In family, the competing needs for being understood and seeking to impart Important Life Lessons corrode at the foundation of relationships, fair intentions obfuscated behind barbed words meant to prod towards Good Choices.
Dating boys, getting her drivers license, turning 18 and immediately going to buy cigarettes and nudie mags, these are the challenges in Lady Bird’s immediate future, hurdles that from her perspective (and that of the filmmaker) are to be treated with the same gravity as any other major life accomplishment, like graduating college, obtaining gainful employment or securing a good interest rate loan. Life is about small milestones, no matter what age you are, and Lady Bird relishes the achievement experienced checking off boxes that at one point posed such significant meaning to us all.
The insulated world surrounding Lady Bird is rich with characters lapping in and out of her life. There’s Lucas Hedges’ Danny, a theater kid for whom she develops a fast crush; academic superstar and best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein); resident rebel and all-around D-bag Kyle (Timothée Chalamet); and cool girl Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), a plastic, single-serving friend who could lend Lady Bird the kind of social capital she’ll need to enter Kyle’s skinny jeans. These relationships are handled with fastidious care, flocking to their natural peaks and ebbing into obscurity; a sour but true reflection of the many people who rise to prominence in our lives, only to fade into distant (and at times regretful) memories.
But as Julie reminds us, “Not everyone is built happy” and nor is Lady Bird without its drawbacks. For its smart, honest storytelling and strong performances (particularly from Ronan and Metcalf), the film suffers some significant pacing problems with it lurching between acts in an at times ungraceful manner, the aftershock of Gerwig finding her footing behind the camera. The realization that Gerwig does not want to say goodbye to this character anytime soon (a farewell wave at the airport does not suffice) leads to a series of nigh unlimited ending that harkens back to Return of the King. The parallels between a mother not wanting to let go of her daughter and a filmmaker not wanting to finish her film a striking real life connection between art and artist.
CONCLUSION: Greta Gerwig’s ‘Lady Bird’ guides Saorsie Ronan through a rebellious phase of teenagedom with stinging humor and a good dose of pathos. Sensitive, charming and at times painful, ‘Lady Bird’ is a confident piece of character-driven coming-of-age drama from a filmmaker discovering her immense talent by reflecting on her own roots.