Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith
Director: Greta Gerwig
Writer: Greta Gerwig
Lady Bird has a note-perfect opening scene that accomplishes more than some movies do in their entire runtime. It features the titular Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) sitting together in a car. They are on their way back to their home in Sacramento after visiting a state university and are both in tears as they listen to the final seconds of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath audio book. In that brief moment they are emotionally in sync with one another, but that changes as soon as they start talking about Lady Bird’s future. Despite her mother’s wish that she go to an affordable in-state college, Lady Bird is impatient to leave Sacramento and travel to someplace like New York, “where the culture is”. This erupts into an argument that Lady Bird ends by jumping out of the running car. It sets exactly the right tone, packs so much humour and conflict in the mother-daughter exchange, and ends in such a jarringly unexpected way that if Lady Bird had ended up being nothing more than a five-minute short film, I still would have been satisfied.
There’s plenty more to come though. We next see Lady Bird being fitted with a cast on her arm and proceed to follow her as she completes her final year at school. Over the course of that year Lady Bird joins the school’s theatre programme with her best friend Julie (Beannie Feldstein), she dates two guys, good-mannered Catholic boy Danny (Lucas Hedges) and rebellious musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and loses her virginity, and she conspires with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply to Columbia behind her mother’s back. She also learns a few things along the way, like how much her family is struggling financially ever since her father was laid off, forcing her mother to work double shifts at the hospital to make ends meet, and how much she still has to learn about life, love, and herself. This is not a plot driven story; it works more like a chain of short episodes in the life of 17-year-old Lady Bird, née Christine McPherson, on her passage into adulthood, detailing the lessons, troubles, and pleasures she experiences along the way.
Written and directed by Greta Gerwig and based largely on her own experiences as a Catholic teenager in California, there is a definite sense of time and place to this film as well as a strong authentic voice. The film is set in 2002, where people are still reeling in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks (it’s just one of many reasons why Marion is so apprehensive about her daughter moving to New York City) and where the modern digital age hasn’t quite fully arrived yet. By setting the film in her hometown of Sacramento, Gerwig is able to create a backdrop that feels both lived-in and intimate, partly through her use of impeccably-cast character actors such as Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who leave sound, memorable impressions in their few minutes of screen time, and also through the investment in detail that could only have been provided by one who has lived this life. From the subsiding middle-class lifestyle that the family lives to the Catholic rituals practiced at the school to the specific atmosphere of the city of Sacramento in 2002, the film is filled with features from Gerwig’s life that she is able to depict in a personal and familiar way with a few little touches.
The key relationship at the heart of this film is that between Lady Bird and her mother. Far from the docile Irish girl she played in Brooklyn, Ronan is utterly boisterous as the restless, defiant Lady Bird. As a character who is impatient for her life to begin but still doesn’t quite understand that she doesn’t yet know what she doesn’t know, Ronan hit that perfect balance between acuity and naiveté and is able to be sensitive and vulnerable while still being impulsive and imprudent. Metcalf meanwhile plays her exasperated passive-aggressive mother with a truly profound sense of world-weariness and maternal affection in equal measure. That she loves her daughter is never in doubt, but she doesn’t always know how best to express it and oftentimes doesn’t have the patience for her teenage angst on top of everything else she has to deal with. There is a scene near the end that focuses squarely on Metcalf’s face for a prolonged, unspoken take in which her performance reaches a moving, heartbreaking peak. In their scenes together the mother and daughter are constantly playing jump-rope with the line between familial harmony and antagonistic quarrelling, as in one moment where they go shopping together and switch from having a heated argument to cooing over a pretty dress in one second flat.
Lady Bird is a thoroughly enjoyable film full of humour, insight and heart. It can occasionally be a little too repetitive and is sometimes a little evasive when faced with a moment that threatens to be too hard-hitting or upsetting. But then that evasiveness is pretty characteristic for a film where the main character throws herself out of a moving car in order to escape an argument with her mother. While I cannot fault a film for being true to its own character, there were still one or two moments where I would’ve liked to see Gerwig follow a moment through and see where it led. Anyway, none of that is a slight against the many things that the film does well. Lady Bird treats its story with much honesty and authenticity, Ronan continues to shine as one of the best young actors working today and brings much humanity and warmth to what is often an unlikeable character (and ditto to Metcalf), and the film at its best is irresistibly funny and affective. I hope this will be the first of many films in Gerwig’s career as a director.