Hilarious and poignant, Lady Bird announces Greta Gerwig as one of the most exciting new filmmakers and solidifies Soarsie Ronan as a major star
The vast number of themes Greta Gerwig tackles in her directorial debut Lady Bird would lead you to believe that it’s an overstuffed, melodramatic dramedy that tries to say something without making a point. However, it’s far from that. Actually, it hits every point it’s trying to make with a stinging poignancy that it’s almost impossible not to relate in some degree to each one. Parenting, love, hate, socioeconomic relations are just a few themes that the movie tackles. But what would most easily sum this up is that Lady Bird is the definitive teen movie of the post 9/11 era.
Christine McPherson (Soarsie Ronan) — she goes by the name Lady Bird because “it’s given to me, by me,” as she says — is a senior at a girls’ Catholic high school in Sacremento, California. Lady Bird’s indictment of her hometown is summed up in the movie’s opening quote: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” However, she’s not your typical pink haired teen rebel. Unlike most teen movie leads, Lady Bird isn’t handicapped by her quirkiness nor taken down by her high opinion of herself compared to her hometown. She is simply a girl with dreams bigger than where she lives. More specifically of New York City.
However, for the next year, she’s stuck at home dealing with boys, college applications, school plays, and her family as she navigates the murky waters of her relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). We view the movie through Lady Bird’s limited perspective, which makes our view of other characters extremely narrow. But that seems to be Gerwig’s intention. At one point, Lady Bird is cast as an ensemble member in the school musical. Her friend Julie tries to reassure her by saying that she still got cast in the play. However, Lady Bird feels like it’s not being cast at all. For her, it’s the starring role or nothing. We all remember the feeling of our own problems being the biggest in the world. Lady Bird understands that and portrays it subtly, but effectively.
Gerwig captures the feeling of being a high schooler so perfectly that it’s nearly impossible to not identify with one of the characters in some way. You have Lady Bird as an ambitious misfit, her friend Julia (Beanie Feldstein — a breakthrough performance) is an endearing nerd, Lucas Hedges’ Danny is an overachieving prodigal son, Timothee Chalamet‘s (Call Me By Your Name) Kyle is a “fight the system” rebel. However, none of them turn into archetypes. They’re lived in characters that have their own backstories that inform their decisions. Even if we don’t get to explore those, they’re present.
That goes for the older characters too. Everyone from Lady Bird’s father, Larry (Tracey Letts), to her adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelley (Marielle Scott) have lived experiences that have affected who they are when we meet them in the movie.
Because of the way the movie is set up, every character gets their moment to shine. However, among the male supporting cast, Letts and Hedges are clear standouts. Letts’ quite and supportive father character is a character that we’ve seen before, but he injects a lingering dourness that makes the outcome of certain scenes all the more profound. And Hedges, who received his first Oscar nomination last year for Manchester by the Sea, makes Danny sweet and filled with a natural teenage awkwardness that is masked by a confidence that only theater kids could understand.
However, the centerpiece of the film is Lady Bird’s relationship with Marion. Like most mother/daughter relationships, it’s one that can completely turn around at just a wrong word. No scene better portrays this than when Lady Bird and Marion, on a road trip visiting colleges, cry together after completing an audio version of The Grapes of Wrath, which is then followed by just a few lines of dialogue that cause Lady Bird to jump out of the moving car. While the relationship is played for laughs during their first couple scenes together, later scenes give way to a heartbreaking dynamic that is too familiar for any teen that grew up during the 2000s. Ronan and Metcalf give Oscar worthy performances that are sure to become iconic in the near future.
The true thematic depth of Lady Bird is only rewarded after repeat viewings. When I say it runs the gauntlet of teenage problems, it truly covers a multitude of them. But the reason for it is justified. Lady Bird is an extraordinary character who is so firmly the lead her own movie that every supporting plot falls to the wayside — until they don’t. In a telling scene, Lady Bird encounters one character who she finds crying. We don’t know why. We don’t know how long she’s been crying. It feels like there was a completely different scene or movie preceding this one that we didn’t see since we’re so stuck in a Lady Bird’s point of view. When she asks the person why they are crying, they simply reply, “some people aren’t built happy, you know?”