Hoping to escape sleepy Sacramento, California, Lady Bird McPherson tells her best friend that she hopes to go to college in New York. It is 2002, just a year after the 9/11 attacks.
“What about terrorism?” her friend asks.
“Don’t be Republican,” Lady Bird says with droll certainty, capturing in one quick phrase the film’s wit and specificity.
In her glorious first film as writer-director, Greta Gerwig creates a coming-of-age story that is wry, funny and touchingly real. And the character of Lady Bird, played with naturalness and precision by Saoirse Ronan, is a perfect reflection of Gerwig’s creative voice.
Its overall style is so smooth and polished it verges on hyperrealism
That sensibility is familiar from Frances Ha! and Mistress America, films she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach and starred in. In Lady Bird, the voice is wholly Gerwig’s: dialogue that is sometimes astute and often goofy, visuals presented with piercing clarity and vivid colour, an overall style so smooth and polished it verges on hyperrealism.
Ronan is totally in sync with the quirky-yet-common mix of qualities typical of Gerwig. The character insists in being called by the absurdly retro name ‘Lady Bird’ instead of her given name, Christine. She has blunt-cut hair with red streaks growing out, wears the uniform of her Catholic girls’ school, and walks with a gangly yet graceful poise.
As the story follows Lady Bird through her last year of high school, Ronan and Gerwig capture the typical phases of a young woman’s life with an ease that feels casual yet is built on a thousand brilliantly-observed choices.
Lady Bird falls in love with two guys, both of them mistakes for her, but beautifully cast and played for us. Danny (Lucas Hedges, from Manchester by the Sea) is modest and dreamy. Kyle (Timothée Chalamet, a discovery in Call Me By Your Name) is a handsome rebel. The way Ronan tilts her head and smiles when Lady Bird looks at Kyle says volumes about someone learning to flirt. As smart, impressionable teenage girls do, she reads a book – in this case, Howard Zinn’s leftist A People’s History of the United States - because the guy she likes is reading it. That information is presented without comment. It’s all the matter of a simple prop, but Gerwig’s nuanced approach allows us to notice the book and know her heroine that much better.
Beneath Gerwig’s beautifully light touch is a shrewd attention to family dynamics and an honest depiction of class that is rare in mainstream comedies
Much of the comedy flows from Lady Bird’s school. The endlessly original Lois Smith is a nun who is neither demonised nor too cute, evading the usual clichés. When Lady Bird joins the drama club, Gerwig presents the hilarious incongruity of teenagers playing middle-aged characters in Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. There is a football coach recruited as a drama club director.
But beneath Gerwig’s beautifully light touch is a shrewd attention to family dynamics and an honest depiction of class that is rare in mainstream comedies. Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf are vividly understated as Lady Bird’s parents, middle-middle-class people surrounded by upper-middle-class neighbours. Lady Bird mocks herself by telling Danny she’s from “the wrong side of the tracks,” unaware of how that wounds her parents.
We understand why she is embarrassed, though. When she shops for a formal dress with her mother in a discount shop, we can almost feel the cheapness of the fabrics. But we also see how her parents struggle, her father downsized out of his job, her mother working double shifts as a psychiatric nurse.
The original title for Lady Bird was Mothers and Daughters, and the arguments between Lady Bird and her mother are furious and heartbreaking. Her mother says vicious things, constantly calling her daughter selfish, snobbish and ungrateful. When Lady Bird swears she’s going to pay back all the money she’s cost the family so she never has to hear that again, her mother snaps, “I highly doubt you will be able to get a job good enough to do that.” Who says that to her child? It’s a sign of Gerwig’s understanding and generosity to her characters that we, and Lady Bird, finally understand the fears and insecurities that cause the mother to try to limit the daughter’s ambitions.
Girls’ coming-of-age movies are still relatively rare. Even the best of them have heroines easily reduced to types, from the boy-and-shopping-crazed Cher in Amy Heckerling’s Clueless to the awkward misfit played by Hailee Steinfeld in the recent The Edge of Seventeen. Gerwig almost reinvents the genre by creating a typical teen who is also an utterly specific individual.
Lady Bird may sound slight, but it offers an eloquent, fresh voice from a thoroughly accomplished film-maker.
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