Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith
Director: Greta Gerwig
Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
If there was ever any doubt, actor/writer/now director Greta Gerwig is the real deal. Over the past decade, she's managed to create an onscreen persona straddling social awkwardness and searing wit in a variety of films such as Baghead, Greenberg, Damsels in Distress, and 20th Century Women. Crucially, as co-writer and star of Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha and Mistress America, the claims of a funny and intuitive leading lady playing "muse" for an older misanthropic man now seems willfully ignorant, seeing as both of those films are clearly more Gerwig-centric than Baumbach-adjacent. With her debut feature Lady Bird, she's made something which comes across a lot like the characters she's been portraying over the years; empathetic, humorous, strong-willed, and disarming.
Lady Bird is a coming-of-age film. Gerwig knows this, and doesn't shy away from the genre beats, but there's a confidence in juggling tonality that's remarkable for a first time filmmaker. The funny/sad/heartwarming model used so often in coming-of-age canon entries such as Pretty in Pink and newer examples like Juno or The Edge of Seventeen is well-worn territory, and part of the pleasure of Lady Bird is the way it doesn't try to upend those genre expectations. Instead, the film is an intelligently realized depiction of high school life told with specificity and a streak of welcome passive aggressiveness. This last strand involves 17-year-old Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), at the end of her high school run, and prickly relationship she has with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). This testy dynamic is seen right from the outset where mother-daughter have just finished a 21-hour audio book of The Grapes of Wrath, their faces streaked with tears. Instead of, in Marion's words, simply "sitting still with what we've heard", Christine fidgets with the car radio, sending them into a sparring war of quick verbal jabs. What follows involves a dangerously rash decision, a pink arm cast, and even more hurtful words.
There's a story here involving Christine (who refers to herself as "Lady Bird" and expects others to do the same) trying to get out of her hometown of Sacramento (dubbed "The Midwest of California") and into an East Coast art college, but the heart of Gerwig's unusually moving screenplay is that aforementioned mother-daughter relationship. Of course, there's the usual coming-of-age tropes; Christine has a nerdy best friend, enjoys musical theater, falls for a dorky boy and later, a cool guy musician who predictably turns out to be a moron, but what distinguishes Lady Bird from the average crop of movies of this stripe is Gerwig's refusal to offer up easy sentiment. Though there are bulky computer monitors, passing mentions of 911, and mid-to-late 90's mainstream pop music blaring throughout, the script seems more interested in subtle class distinctions than lazy nostalgia of early aughts sensibilities. To that end, Christine's father, Larry (Tracy Letts) is the kind of quietly passive figure we don't often see in the movies, but his restrained parenting style isn't merely a throwaway screenwriting choice, but comes out of the character's feelings of inadequacy, exacerbated by the loss of his job. This, coupled with Christine's insecurities about her struggling middle class family in relation to the majority of her Catholic school classmate's more affluent domestic lifestyles, gives the film a tension which explodes whenever mother and daughter are in the same room together.
Gerwig wisely doesn't push the financial distress issue into hamfisted territory, but uses it in order to define Christine in relation to those around her. The film is warmly generous to all of its characters, large and small. Even the ineffectual males in her life--Lucas Hedges as her goofy music theater crush, Timothée Chalamet as an elitist bad boy reading Howard Zinn--are given moments of humanity, even if they themselves can't recognize it. The development where she leaves her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein) for a snobby rich girl is a high school movie staple, and the way the two besties inevitably patch things up initially feels rote, until one remembers that youth contains situations just like this. Ultimately, Gerwig takes the trope, embraces it, and then makes it feel achingly human.
In terms of aesthetics, Lady Bird is also simply not a case of a gifted actor getting a team of other gifted actors together in a room and letting them riff. Though one expects the writing to be razor-sharp, Gerwig's gift for pacing, narrative tempos, and spacial framing is also surprisingly assured. There are a few false steps; a sequence involving a gym coach being sequestered to run the school's theater program is cartoonishly out of step with the film's otherwise natural charms, for example, but the ultimate masterstroke is the broader perspective shift in the second half.
Though Christine is the clear Gerwig stand-in (complete with Ronan doing a brilliant impression while never devolving into mimicry), the film's compassionate rendering of Marion as a complicated person with her own internal life shows a legitimate maturity of vision. Metcalf is absolutely sublime in the role; showcasing a variety of emotional and psychological stages, from stubborn to brash to heartbreakingly vulnerable. Her chemistry (or anti-chemistry) with Ronan is the heart of the film, giving way to both its funniest and saddest scenes.
Through arguments wrought with painful quips, passive aggressive comments, and miscommunication, Marion and Christine's brittle bond becomes a fulcrum for the larger fear of losing control. As a teenager, Christine only wants to escape the seventh layer of hell that is Sacramento; and she'll badger, prod, and push her mother in order to make that happen. As a parent and breadwinner, Marion sacrifices her time and body in order to provide for her family; but will goad, taunt, and humiliate her daughter to no end. As contentious as their dynamic can be, the film does allow for the occasional grace note; like a beautiful montage where the two forget their troubles by pretending to go "house shopping" in the rich part of town. Additionally, their final moments together at an airport sting with the pangs of honest regret, heartache, and possibly even hope. As a film, Lady Bird weds semi-autobiographical hometown love with a fractious mother-daughter relationship set to the whiny din of Dave Matthews Band. As a filmmaker, Gerwig understands that, in the words of Christine's head high school nun, paying attention and love are often the same thing.