A funny, heartfelt, honest look at high school life and mother-daughter relationships.
February 15, 2018
As an actor, Greta Gerwig has mastered the portrayal of quarter-life malaise, with Frances Ha, Mistress America and Maggie's Plan on her resume to prove it. But though she might fit the part in her performances, you certainly couldn't accuse her of the same lack of direction in real life. Not only did she co-write Frances Ha and Mistress America with director Noah Baumbach, but she has now made history with Lady Bird, her five-time Oscar-nominated debut feature as a solo filmmaker. She's just the fifth woman ever to score a Best Director nod, and you just know her hapless yet charming array of on-screen alter egos would be proud. Hell, Frances Halliday would probably rank Gerwig among her idols.
As impressive a list of plaudits as Lady Bird has amassed, they pale in comparison to the movie itself. While it can seem like high school coming-of-age films are more common than actual high schoolers, Gerwig gets everything right with her entry into the genre. Here, the minutiae matters, whether it's the sounds of Alanis Morissette's 'One Hand In My Pocket' playing on a car radio, or casually slinging the term "hella tight" into conversation. Specific yet always relatable, Gerwig stitches it all together like she's borrowing from shared memories. Swap in a song and slang phrase relevant to your own teen years, and she very well could be.
Stepping through Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson's 2002 senior year, Lady Bird demonstrates its strength, intelligence and realism from its very first line. "Do you think I look like I'm from Sacramento?" the teenager (Saoirse Ronan) asks her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), her recognisable desperation for a different life evident in every word. Like most folks so close to college, she wants to fly far away from her quiet patch of suburban California – to finally figure out who she is and start down a path of her own. "I wish I could live through something," she complains. The last thing she's interested in is exactly what she's facing for the next 12 months: more of what she's always known.
Shot with a naturalistic glow and paced to mimic the urgency of just wanting adulthood to begin, every frame of the film feels familiar, even as the story dives into distinctive arenas, such as Catholic schooling and lower middle-class family life, as well as the struggles and class divisions that come with it. As Sacramento native Gerwig has described, "the more particular you make something, the more universal it becomes." Accordingly, though it's easy to pick where the narrative is headed, it proves authentic and lived-in rather than generic and derivative. Lady Bird chases vastly different boys (Manchester By the Sea's Lucas Hedges and Call Me By Your Name's Timothée Chalamet), auditions for school plays with her BFF (an excellent Beanie Feldstein), secretly applies to out-of-state universities, flits between groups of friends, and argues with her overworked mum.
For all of the astute ways that Lady Bird captures what it's like to be a 17-year-old, it's the mother-daughter relationship that truly sits at the centre of the film. That's thanks not only to Gerwig's perceptive script and multi-layered characters, but also to Ronan and Metcalf's unaffected, emotionally complex performances. Take another of the movie's pivotal scenes as an example, with Lady Bird and Marion rifling through op shop clothes racks looking for an appropriate Thanksgiving dress. They bicker, ooze passive aggression, and actually fight about being passive aggressive — until they find the right frock, and the tension instantly dissipates. It's a scene that everyone watching has lived through in some shape or form, even if the precise details differ. Capturing the feeling of wanting to break free of your parents' control, while loving them all the same, it's a perfect encapsulation of this funny, heartfelt and wonderfully honest film.