Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird reminded me of my own experiences growing up. When a coming-of-age movie works, I’m bound to say that, and Lady Bird is one that works so well. Or, as they say in Northern California, hella good.
Given, Lady Bird is set in the suburbs of Sacramento and I was raised in the suburbs of San Jose, but maybe in a weird way the two cities are connected, the amorphous north/south bookends to San Francisco. The film is set in 2002 whereas I graduated high school in 1999, but it’s still that era before ubiquitous cell phones; a time when you could express a genuine, ambivalent, or ironic relationship with the Dave Matthews Band without too much shame.
Lady Bird is overflowing with a sense of gratitude and affection for people and a place, one so deep that it’s embarrassing to state it out loud. The movie is a love letter. It comes through in Gerwig’s earnest writing, and in Saoirse Ronan’s artsy angsty indecision, and in Laurie Mecalf’s heartbreaking hard love. Lady Bird is not just a great solo directorial debut from Gerwig, it’s also one of the best movies of 2017.
[This review originally ran as part of Flixist’s coverage of the 55th New York Film Festival. It has been reposted to coincide with the theatrical release of the film.]
Director: Greta Gerwig
Release Date: November 3, 2017 (limited)
Her name is Christine but she calls herself Lady Bird (Ronan) and she’s a middle-of-the-road student at a Catholic school. She’s grown up lower middle-class but in a loving home. Her mom (Metcalf) works double-shifts at a clinic and her father (Tracy Letts) has just been laid off. The film follows a year in Lady Bird’s life as she figures out who her friends are, where to go to college, if she’ll go to college, what sex is sort of about, where she belongs in the social pecking order, and all of the other late-teenage signifiers of your first significant existential crisis.
Lady Bird feels like a spiritual prequel to Noah Baumbach’s delightful Frances Ha, which Gerwig starred in. Both movies are about young women at a point of transition trying to figure out their lives. Lady Bird’s own crisis is embedded in her names: Lady Bird vs. Christine. She’s trying to make an identity for herself (Lady Bird) distinct from all of the other obligations and identities conferred upon her by her parents, by her social class, by fate (Christine). She tries on a variety of identities as the year goes by, going through phases (like many of us did), and getting closer to who she really is but only eventually (like many of us do).
It may be generational, but I could see myself living as a side character in the world of Lady Bird. The movie captures a shared middle-class, late-Gex-X/early-millennial experience in nearly every scene. My brief stint as a theater kid, like Lady Bird’s, usually involved hanging out at a 24-hour diner after shows. I remember being a crummy friend to good people out of the hope of achieving some status. And of course there’s a guy trying to look cool by reading Howard Zinn. And obviously they’re smoking cloves. And, for anyone who’s applied to colleges, you can look at the size of the envelopes and divine their meaning; the suburban equivalent of tea leaves.
Gerwig’s got a knack as a writer for finding the right awkward comeback as well as the right moment for an intimate emotional disclosure. Lady Bird falls briefly for a young theater kid named Danny (Lucas Hedges). Things work out until they don’t–love in a nutshell, teenage especially–and there’s the inevitable moment when they have to talk about what happened. The scene could have gone in so many different directions, but instead it reveals a desperate kindness between them. The same sort of emotional authenticity is present whenever Lady Bird is hanging out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), a character so well-drawn and acted that she could have supported her own coming-of-age film. One of the many strengths of Lady Bird is that I can imagine these other stories playing out on their own off-screen, and how they’d be just as satisfying.
The most heartfelt and heartbreaking scenes involve Lady Bird and her mother, Marion. She’s always working. If she’s not at work, she’s working at home. She takes out her anxieties in the form of money talk, pointing out that things are wasteful, or quick with a “have you ever considered how much this will cost” guilt trip. There’s a valuable lesson couched in her scolding. She nags and criticizes too often without compliments. Like many teens, Lady Bird wants to hear she’s loved and her parents are proud; like many parents, Marion believes the love and pride is implicit. Whenever Lady Bird and her mother get a quirky, tender moment going, they wind up fighting, as revealed by the opening scene of the movie. Marion says and does everything out of a love so overwhelming she can’t articulate it properly. Lady Bird’s dad is a pushover by comparison, a sort of vessel through which all of mom’s kindness can finally reach stubborn ol’ Lady Bird.
I keep thinking about scenes between Lady Bird and her mom, and I keep crying whenever I do. While Ronan is excellent as the lead who guides us through this pivotal year, it’s Laurie Metcalf who makes the movie work as well as it does. Her performance is so real and so painful, with all that loving subtext communicated in the way she delivers her lines or gives a look. Metcalf’s Marion is the solid foundation of workaholic middle-class living, one that explains Lady Bird’s teenage rebellion while also undercutting it, as if mom is there even in scenes where she’s absent. All of the antagonism is well-meaning, whether Lady Bird realizes it or not; and all of Marion’s work is necessarily imperfect, and it probably guts her to think she could have done more or better for her kids.
Amid all the raw teenage feelings, Lady Bird also examines class in America, specifically the broad gradations of being middle class. Lady Bird’s family is middle class, and lives in a modest home on a single income. By contrast, other middle class kids live in large houses in better neighborhoods; some have “middle class” parents whose starter homes were in those better neighborhoods. This status anxiety fuels a lot of Lady Bird’s screw ups as she figures things out, and it also fuels some of Marion’s own frustration as a parent. When a date jokes that Lady Bird really does live on the wrong side of the tracks–it’s not just an expression–Marion bears a grudge. She is her mother’s daughter.
Structurally, Lady Bird breezes by, carried by the editing as well as Jon Brion’s score. (I’ve always liked Brion, whose music feels like melancholy cartoon accompaniment for the real world. He finds the right sound for downtrodden feelings, the highs and lows seemingly dictated by the wind before gravity takes effect.) Time is signified by the presence of a cast on the arm, by haircuts, by who’s hanging out with whom, and by holidays and events. The effect is similar to flipping through a yearbook. Lady Bird has a way of triggering memories like that. Drawing another connection to Frances Ha, it’s like a lived-in version of that film’s Sacramento montage, in which Frances returns home for the holidays. Snippets like photos of a loving home, and then back to the existential crises of New York City.
I mentioned at the beginning of this review that Lady Bird is a love letter. Gerwig’s own sense of gratitude for her parents and her hometown comes through and overwhelms as the film winds down. Lady Bird could have had things better, but at a certain point in adult life, it may be possible to understand how good simple things like love and kindness are; and it may also be possible to understand how good you’ve had it if you’ve simply had both in ample measure. How lucky and how lovely it can feel to be alive and to mess up and to know that wherever you wind up, someone somewhere cares.