Directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothee Chalamet
Released November 3rd, 2017 (USA)
Lady Bird wasn’t on my radar until a couple of weeks ago, and then it was suddenly everywhere, with glowing reviews all around and the highest rating ever on Rotten Tomatoes. Initially, the local theater company was only going to show it for a few days, but apparently, the fact that it sold out all those showings with people clamoring for more led the theater to hold it over. They had apparently forgotten that women make up half the population, and that we sometimes want to watch something other than superhero movies.
There’s nothing like going into a film with high expectations, so I was a little nervous when the lights went down at the theater last night when a friend and I went to see Lady Bird. What if we didn’t like it, in spite of all the great reviews?
I’m happy to report that Lady Bird is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen.
The coming of age story is one that’s been around for a long time, but it’s usually about a boy, and often seems to involve some sort of adventure or otherwise has high stakes. In Lady Bird, the stakes are not global. They don’t even involve the future of the school. They are resoundingly personal.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson begins her senior year of high school as the movie opens. She has the same hopes and fears that most seventeen-year-old girls have: what college will she go to? does the boy she likes like her back? why doesn’t she look like the girls in the magazines? These issues are compounded by her family’s lack of money. Lady Bird’s family is poor, and while she has scholarships that allow her to attend a private Catholic school, her classmates are generally wealthy,and Lady Bird is desperately trying to pretend that her family has money, too, but doesn’t realize the hurt she causes her parents by her charade. Lady Bird’s obliviousness to who she hurts is a running theme in the story- in her quest to be cool and accepted, she steamrolls over a lot of people’s feelings.
And that, in a way, is the point of Lady Bird’s journey. She’s a teenager reaching for adulthood, and she doesn’t know how to successfully walk that narrow line. When she fails, she hurts people. Sometime on purpose, and sometimes without intending to.
Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother is especially fraught. In the opening scene, they are driving home from a college visit and just finishing up listening to an audiobook. They share a teary moment that quickly dissolves into an argument with both of them making some awful comments to each other. And you would think that this opens a film full of mother/daughter bickering, but that’s not what happens. Sure, they bicker. They insult each other. They have a horrible fight. But ultimately, Lady Bird loves her mother, and her mother loves her. They bond over dress shopping at the thrift store and in quiet scenes in the car. When someone insults her mother, Lady Bird responds by defending her. It’s a wonderfully realistic relationship.
The teenage friendships are brilliantly done, as well. Lady Bird and her best friend Julie fret over their weight and over boys and school, but are as apt to dissolve into giggles over anything, just like teenagers are wont to do. And when Lady Bird is trying to fit in with cool girl Jenna, she says and does the sort of things that help her edge her way into their circle, but you can sense that she isn’t completely comfortable with what she’s doing.
And the boys. Oh, the boys… Lady Bird gets tangled up in two relationships- one that is initially brilliant and one that isn’t, but both are perfectly wrought and exactly what first loves are like, awkward, difficult to navigate, and often unsatisfying. But Lady Bird is learning what love is and what it isn’t. She knows that life and love aren’t all flowers and sunshine, but she has yet to truly understand what that means.
“Attention is love”
Throughout the film, Lady Bird complains about her hometown of Sacremento. There’s no culture there, she says. “It’s the Midwest of California” (a particularly funny line when you are a Midwesterner). She can’t wait to get out of there, and with the help of her sympathetic father, secretly applies for several schools in New York. But when one of the nuns at her school reviews Lady Bird’s college essay, detailing how much love it shows for Sacramento, Lady Bird doesn’t get it at first. “I guess I just pay attention,” she says. The nun responds by saying, “Isn’t attention a kind of love?”
That attention is what makes this movie so wonderful. Greta Gerwig paid attention to every last detail. Her attention insured that even minor characters are important, and that they all have lives and emotions of their own. Shelly, Lady Bird’s brother’s live-in girlfriend has an entire life story conveyed in just a few lines, and even cool girl Jenna is more than just a gossipy teenager with a hot boyfriend and a pool in her backyard. There are no stereotypes, no moments when the thing you’re sure will happen (because it happens in every other movie about teenagers) actually happens. It is, like life, unpredictable, but is true to the characters because of who are are as human beings.
It is clear that Gerwig loved this, her first film and the making of it, and that she cared about every little detail that went into it. There is no note that feels false or forced. It is simply wonderful, and if Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, and Gerwig herself don’t get nominated for every award out there, then the awards people will have some explaining to do.
NPR’s podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour did a wonderful review of Lady Bird. You can find it here.