Written By: Daniel Kinsley
Greta Gerwig has, for all intents and purposes, thus far had a successful career as an actress and writer most known for strong work with indie auteurs like Noah Baumbach (Frances, Ha ) and Mike Mills (20th Century Women ). With her (solo) directorial debut, Lady Bird (2017) (which she also wrote) Gerwig takes a major leap forward as an artist. Utilizing some of the same tonal and stylistic elements as her previous collaborators, it is a film that remains uniquely and entirely her own.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is in many ways a typical teenager. During the course of the film, she smokes pot for the first time, loses her virginity, joins the school musical, and worries over how to escape her fish-bowl town for a college filled with (a teen’s idea of) real culture. Set in late 2002-03 Sacramento, CA, it is a world that will feel immediately recognizable to any viewers who came of age in the last decade.
While Lady Bird laments her station in life, telling people she is from “the wrong side of the tracks,” her mother, Marion (a truly spectacular Laurie Metcalf) pulls double shifts at the psych hospital, calling Lady Bird out on her bullshit, nitpicking the way her daughter drags her feet, or fails to pick up after herself before going to bed. As a man, this writer is bound to miss some of the nuances of a mother-daughter relationship, but as a formerly angst-driven teen, the relationship rings so many familiar bells that gender feels nearly beside the point. The film manages a remarkable balancing act of perspective; to an adult eye, Lady Bird is myopic, capable of acting wholly ungrateful, and thoughtless, while teens will likely see Marion as stubborn, pedantic, and lacking in warmth. The film is able to express what neither Lady Bird nor Marion can, which is that much of their actions are driven by the same desire for Lady Bird to live her best life, and a shared love so strong that it easily transcends all of the trouble between them. It is a dynamic that towers over the rest of the film, and both women do tremendous work in exploring the nuances between them.
Ronan turns in another terrific performance in a career full of them; it has been a real pleasure to see the way she has grown as a performer, and this may be her finest work yet. Though Ronan and Metcalf are at the center, this is a film that is filled with really great performances. Tracy Letts is stoic and sad as Lady Bird’s father, a man battling his own depressive issues while trying to keep his family afloat, while Lucas Hedges (fresh off devastating work in Manchester By The Sea ) gets to show off his charm and vulnerability in spades, which makes it all the more impressive that it never feels like a repeat performance. But in a way, it feels almost negligent for this writer not to give each and every character their due, because the film does. From Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend, Julie, to Lois Smith as one of the nuns at Ladybird’s school, the film affords each of them a moment of humor, or grace. It is a small thing, but the depth that it provides makes this world feel simultaneously intimate and much larger.
Gerwig also deserves a lot of credit for the killer song selection, from Justin Timberlake to Alanis Morissette and Dave Matthews Band. It is clear they are not just winking needle drops, as these are songs that will remind you of moments from your own life, particularly for all those 90s kids out there. For many of us, including this writer, music is such an enormous part of our formative years, and it is a detail that most films would gloss over, but the moments of heartache or joy are amplified that much more by the accompanying soundtrack.
Purely as a piece of writing, it is easily the best script Gerwig has had a hand in. It is dexterous in balancing tone, and so, funny, and sweet, and tinged with a bit of melancholy. While Gerwig has said the film “rhymes with the truth, rather than it actually being true,” it remains a feat that it all feels so real. This writer had similar experiences, or said similar things, or knew people who did. To infuse perhaps the most tried-and-true genre with something that feels at once fresh, and so specifically familiar is truly a special accomplishment.
Being a teenager is very difficult. It may not be fair to say that adults forget this, but with age, there is a specificity to the way younger people experience things that gets lost along the way. More than anything, what Lady Bird gets so, so right, is the way it feels to be a messy, angst-filled, bursting-at-the-seams teenager. While there are many great coming of age films, few of them have been able to transport this writer back to a place of such deep familiarity. What separates the film from (lesser) others like it is the lack of any forced propulsion. There is no urgency to the way homecoming, and then prom unfolds; graduation is a celebratory moment, but the film quickly marches on. None of these events is a finale unto itself, but they make up a series of moments that capture a very specific time and make it feel universally recognizable.
It is only toward the end of the film, when faced with leaving Sacramento and all of the things that she grew up knowing, that the significance of her life up until now has meant. In the film’s final moments, viewers are left with the sense that the life she has yearned for was ahead, as she imagined, but also within her reach all along. It is because (not in spite of) her stubborn rebellion from ordinary that she is finally able to see the magic in the everyday. It is a quiet epiphany, expressed largely without words, though it remains hugely affecting, and up close, it looks an awful lot like growing up. Make no mistake, not only is it one of the year’s best, but this writer suspects it will soon join the ranks of timeless films about what it was like to face down adulthood.