by Haley Goetz
Greta Gerwig’s sublime Lady Bird begins with a fight. A mother is driving her daughter back home after they have spent considerable time touring colleges together. They’re listening to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath on tape and as soon as the book comes to a close, the bickering begins. Initially, this may seem to be an all-too common altercation between a mother and her teenage daughter, but that’s just the thing about this film: it masks itself under the guise of following familiar cinematic tropes when in fact it is anything but that. Lady Bird is a bright, intelligent, well-wrought, and wholly original film from a new voice who is sure to stay around for quite some time.
Christine, or the self-christened Lady Bird, McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is an outspokenly ambitious young woman on the brink of becoming a woman. She’s a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, a city she dubs as being “the Midwest of California.” Lady Bird is not a religious person and she’s most definitely not a conformist. With bright pink hair and a go-get ‘em spirit, her goal is to get out of her hometown and truly find herself someplace else. To get there, however, she must contend with members of her family, who each want different things for her. Along the way, Lady Bird comes of age in different respects, from exploring her sexuality, to forging and breaking friendships, to learning how to best manage her emotions.
Greta Gerwig is the writer and director of Lady Bird. At thirty-four years old, she has had an illustrious career in film, having started off primarily with acting as well as co-writing and co-directing multiple projects. A graduate of Barnard College in New York City, Gerwig initially aspired to be a playwright before she began acting in mumblecore films by the likes of Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach (who has been her partner since 2011). This whole amalgamation of creation has undoubtedly led her to craft a richly nuanced and experienced portrait of youth in Lady Bird, as the film is truly a masterwork of both writing and direction.
Starting with the lovely way in which the film is written, it becomes clear that Gerwig had a lot of material to work from in terms of what she wanted her film to say. The original first draft of the film was over three hundred pages long and the film manages to have a ninety-minute runtime. Gerwig effectively sifted through everything in her original script and was able to condense it down to what was truly needed to build the story and its characters up as richly as possible. The naturalistic style Gerwig directs Lady Bird, reminiscent of great filmmakers such as John Cassavetes and Chantel Akerman, allows for her characters to truly be who they are on their own without a lot of external guidance. This is how films should be made. While it is great to have narrative structure throughout a film, at the same time, it is also quite useful to bring to the table a lot of experimentation and improvisation.
The reason why the acting in Lady Bird is so superb is because it is the most absurdly natural thing to witness. Every single person in the film, be it a leading figure or a supporting one, has a defining characteristic to their individual persona. From Lady Bird, who is very outspoken but at the same time very confused about herself and her word, to her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who is just trying her best even if she is quite abrasive at times. Then there’s Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts), an incredibly caring man dealing with tough circumstances at his job. My favorite character by far would have to be Lady Bird’s best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), a hilarious girl who doesn’t understand her knack for true comedic talent along with who she exactly is and where she fits in. Finally, there are three other supporting characters who have a strong emotional resonance with Lady Bird. There’s Danny (Lucas Hedges), her pure first love and subsequent first heartbreak, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), the atypical yet irresistible bad boy type, and, last but not least, Jenna (Odeya Rush), the popular girl at school who Lady Bird falls in with after she is taken under her wing.
The thing with Lady Bird is that it is such a universal film, filled with relatable personal experiences, but at the same time, is also a very condensed film. The entirety of Lady Bird only takes place within quite a confined time period, and this is what makes it so emotive in the end. By focusing just on one specific (and pivotal) period in a young woman’s life, it really is one of those films that shows true meaning and how it can manifest itself into the everyday. Seeing a film such as this as a young woman was powerful for me, a young aspiring female filmmaker. While I almost wish as if I could have seen this film as I was finishing up my high school career, I am just as happy that I could catch it while I was still in the “figuring it all out” stage of my life. This is the kind of film that deserves every single accolade it can get. And if there’s one thing that really needs to be spoken about to the highest degree would have to be how incredibly and brazenly it displays female agency in ways that haven’t been seen before.
Sex and romantic relationships are always driving forces in films. While this isn’t necessarily always a bad thing, at the same time it’s pretty wild that those aren’t the end-all, be-all of Lady Bird’s story. Lady Bird wants to try everything. She wants to experience attraction, she wants to fall in love, she wants to have sex. But these things do not and will not completely define her as a person. Lady Bird is the definition of a strong and independent young woman who will not allow the world to meld her into someone she is not. She truly is a wonderful (albeit fictional) role model for young women her age to look up to. By the film’s end, Lady Bird has had to painfully break up some friendships and relationships while also strengthening others. She and her mother go through a tumultuous journey together, but they also have really found themselves by the time the credits roll.
This is the sort of film that not only makes you nostalgic for past experiences (to a certain extent) but is also the sort of film that makes you so incredibly optimistic for whatever the future may have in store. Lady Bird is inspirational because it doesn’t try to be. Lady Bird is profound because it shows and displays all of the lovely things that come with being alive. What is life if it is not everything at once, all the time? That to me is what Lady Bird shows and proves.
5 out of 5 stars