The second scene of Lady Bird makes it apparent how special this movie is. Marion McPherson and her daughter Christine, or “Lady Bird,” the name she has chosen for herself, are driving home to Sacramento after a trip visiting prospective colleges in California. Their conversation turns from melancholic reflection over the audiobook they just finished – The Grapes of Wrath – to fighting about Lady Bird’s desire to go far away for college, New York maybe. The scene only lasts about three minutes. It ends when Lady Bird can’t take for one more second her mother’s hurtful words about how her grades aren’t good enough to get her into a local state school, let alone an expensive one on the East coast. In a fit of rage, Lady Bird removes her seat belt, throws open the door, and flings herself out of the car as it barrels down the highway. It’s a brilliant, if hyperbolic, microcosm of the coming-of-age story.
The rest of the picture explores Lady Bird’s coming-of-age with an infinite amount of warmth, grace, bittersweet humor, and charm. This is actress Greta Gerwig’s first solo attempt at writing and directing. She previously co-directed 2008’s Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg, and has co-written several movies with Swanberg and with Noah Baumbach. She has set the bar impossibly high for her next solo project. Her screenplay is insightful and clever. Her direction is assured and gives us intimate access to her character’s lives.
The highest praise I can offer Lady Bird is the authenticity it projects and the empathy it engenders. I have one brother, so my mom was the only woman in our family. I know next to nothing personally about the dynamics between mothers and daughters, but this movie makes me feel like I got an accurate view into what those dynamics look like.
Everyone, though, has gone through the growing pains of adolescence. It’s hard to figure out who you are, and who you want to be. You try on different personas with different peer groups to find out what feels right and what doesn’t. Lady Bird captures the highs and lows of this process with incredible honesty. Gerwig complicates this scenario by making Lady Bird and her family economically disadvantaged.
The McPherson’s aren’t destitute, but they exist in a near-constant state of economic peril. This is exacerbated when Lady Bird’s dad, Larry, gets laid off from his job. Sending her to college will be no easy feat, especially considering she has an older brother, Miguel, whom her parents have already put through school. Their financial struggle is a situation Lady Bird is never able to forget, since her mother reminds her of it every chance she gets.
Besides worrying about high school and money, our young hero must also navigate romantic relationships. She and her best friend, Julie, try out for roles in the theater department’s upcoming musical production. This allows for a very funny, but skillfully understated, montage of auditions. It also leads to Lady Bird falling for Danny, a sweet kid who is starring in the production. He falls just as hard for her. Things are going great until they aren’t, when both Lady Bird and Danny must confront a secret that neither of them knows how to handle.
Lucas Hedges, who found his break-out role in last year’s Manchester by the Sea, plays Danny. He’s in only a handful of scenes in Lady Bird, but one in particular is emotionally pulverizing. He is a member of an ensemble here that is one of the best of the year. Everyone involved gives stellar performances.
Laurie Metcalf is Lady Bird’s mom, and her mastery of non-verbal cues gives a depth to her performance that can’t be overstated. In one scene, Marion is helping Lady Bird try on dresses for the upcoming prom. Lady Bird accuses her mother of not liking her. “Of course, I love you,” Marion says. Lady Bird presses the issue, asking if her mother likes, not loves, her. Marion says she just wants Lady Bird to be the best person she can be. “What if this is the best person I can be,” her daughter asks. Metcalf then performs the slightest of gestures. She simply tilts her head, as if to say, “I hope that’s not true.” That tiny head tilt contains a multitude of disappointment, and Lady Bird receives the message loud and clear.
The brilliant character-actor/playwright Tracy Letts plays Larry, the patriarch of the McPherson clan. Larry is gentle and soft spoken, which leads to him shutting down when Marion and Lady Bird get into one of their screaming matches. He quietly looks off into the distance as they go at it. It’s a reaction I know something about, and if feels very authentic.
Lady Bird is in large part an ensemble piece, but the actress in the titular role, the talented-beyond-her-years Saoirse Ronan, shines among her castmates. She gives a wonderfully nuanced performance. Lady Bird has a defiance that masks an inner vulnerability. The character feels like a real, living teenager. She doesn’t quite know who she is yet, she’s more than a little pretentious, and she wears her heart on her sleeve. It’s an absolute delight to watch Ronan bring Lady Bird to life as she struggles, perseveres, and navigates the road to adulthood.
It would have been easy for Greta Gerwig to go broad with this tale of a young woman discovering herself. Her main character jumping out of a moving car in the first five minutes notwithstanding, the overall effect of Lady Bird is one of understatement. The everyday comedy and tragedy that is inextricable in the lives of a flawed family breathes on the screen. The movie sings with humanity, empathy, and understanding.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- Lady Bird is one of the best movies of the year. Gerwig manages tonal shifts with great precision. The movie is funny, sad, and wistful, sometimes all at once.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Jon Brion is one of the most underrated composers working in the movies today. The way his quirky, delightful music complements Lady Bird is exceptional. Other favorites of mine are his work for Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
- I didn't get a chance (at least not yet) to write about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. I had a terrible reaction to that film, and I think Lady Bird helped in a way illuminate why. Both movies have scenes of family members being terrible to each other in ways that only family members can be. Where these scenes felt sensationalized, ugly, and unrealistic in Three Billboards, they felt true in Lady Bird.
- My heart broke for Lady Bird when one of the more affluent students busts her for lying about where she lives. She goes to a private Catholic school (which, she is constantly reminded, isn't cheap), and the pressure to have money is always present.
- If I have one quibble with the movie, it's with how it handles Lady Bird's brother, Miguel. He is Latino, and we are supposed to assume he's adopted; no one in the movie ever says so. That is actually a strength of the writing. Gerwig trusts us to figure it out for ourselves; she doesn't feel the need to spoon feed us. The problem is both he and his girlfriend — who has moved in with the McPherson's when her mother kicks her out of the house — are the only people of color in a movie that is very, very white. The characters border on tokenism, which is disappointing.
- I forgot to mention, this is technically a period piece. It's set in 2002, and Gerwig has said it's very loosely autobiographical, based on her own experiences.
Up Next at The Forgetful Film Critic:
- Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Do I really need to say any more?