I have never been a 17-year-old female high school student in Sacramento, California, navigating a vexed relationship with my well-meaning, but overly critical mother, trying to land a boyfriend, and looking desperately for a way to overcome my family's limited economic means so I can attend an East Coast university. However, Greta Gerwig's solo directorial debut Lady Bird manages such a beautiful and delicate balance between the universal and the highly specific that I feel like I could have been. Gerwig, who also wrote the script, evokes a shared sense of adolescent turmoil that is neither melodramatic nor condescending, but rather perfectly pitched at a recognizable human level that allows virtually anyone to identify and empathize with the travails of the film's titular protagonist, Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan).
The film opens with a quote from novelist Joan Didion, taken from a 1979 interview published in The New York Times: "Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento." This opening quote, which so pointedly and assuredly dispels the kind of easy myths we use to pretend we know large areas and groups of people, both foreshadows the film's emphasis on the essentially banal nature of its characters' lives and aligns it with Didion's literary output, most of which is set in California and conveys many of the same themes that Gerwig aspires to explore. In that same Times interview, the author, Michiko Kakutani, describes Didion-who, like Gerwig, was born in Sacramento-as a "gifted reporter with an eye for the telling detail The voice is always precise, the tone unsentimental, the view unabashedly subjective. She takes things personally," which would also serve as an apt description of Gerwig's deeply humane approach to her story.
The film follows Lady Bird (a nickname she has applied to herself) during her senior year in high school, during which time she must navigate a difficult relationship with her over-reactive mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and her reticent, depressed father Larry (Tracy Letts), her evolving friendship with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and her desire to have a boyfriend, which is initially fulfilled by her relationship with the sweet, slightly goofy Danny (Lucas Hedges) and then with the narrow-eyed, overly self-important outsider Kyle (Timothe Chalamet). Amid all this she gets involved in her private Catholic school's theater program, spars with her older adopted brother Miguel (Miguel McPherson), who still lives at home with his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott), and tries to figure out how she can manage to escape the strangling chokehold of Sacramento for college on the East Coast.
Lady Bird is smart, but her grades aren't spectacular, and her family's extremely limited finances (her father is regularly out of work and they live, as she puts it, "on the wrong side of the tracks") mean that she would have to win some kind of scholarship. Hence, much of the world is stacked against her, and part of the film's charm and undeniable pleasure is watching Lady Bird push against the limitations imposed on her. Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) has an ineffable sense of genuine, rather than sentimental, innocence that makes her perfectly suited for the role of a rebel whose rebellion is limited largely to brash hair color and a desire to leave her current life behind. She doesn't want to hurt anyone, and in many ways she conforms to the norms of her world-desiring a boyfriend, sucking up to the popular girl (Odeyah Rush) and lying about where she lives to impress her, going to the prom-which only underscores her evolving sense of self. Like most adolescents, she is stumbling through her ever-changing identity, trying on different emotional and social garbs until she figures out what fits. This is why she has so much conflict with her mother, who Laurie Metcalf plays with a sense of refreshing honesty that makes her continually sympathetic even when she undermines her own good intentions.
In one particularly pointed scene, Marion makes the mistake of unnecessarily criticizing Lady Bird while she's trying on prom dresses, and when Lady Bird comes out of the dressing room and asks why she doesn't like her, Marion literally can't bring herself to say that she does like her because that would be lying. She loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but there is a rift between them of misunderstanding that forestalls that particular emotional connection. That is part of the film's blunt honesty, and it works because Gerwig doesn't soften it to the point of being meaningless or overplay it to the point of being insufferable (as Martin McDonagh does in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which lacks exactly the kind of human feeling that makes Lady Bird's most difficult scene ring true).
Gerwig displays a fine sense of humor, one that is rooted in both close observation and broader gags that provide the film with tonal diversity. Many of the scenes between Lady Bird and Shelly, who together resemble an adolescent female Laurel and Hardy (where Lady Bird is tall and often solemn, Shelly is plump and blissfully cheerful), derive dexterous humor from their odd-couple perfection, whereas other scenes with peripheral characters strive more aggressively for big laughs (I'm thinking in particular about a scene in which a coach is recruited last minute to direct the school play, and he barks out stage directions like he's delivering them to a fullback about to go up the middle for the game-winning touchdown). Gerwig, who has until now been known primarily as an actress in various outside-the-mainstream productions directed by the likes of Ti West, Woody Allen, Whit Stillman, and, in particular, Noah Baumbach (she co-wrote his 2012 film Frances Ha), proves to be as good a director as she is a writer, as she manages a wide range of emotional registers throughout Lady Bird while keeping it all of a piece. There are a few bits that are probably too on-the-nose, and the last quarter or so doesn't quite live up to the promise of the film's earlier sequences, but as a whole it holds together marvelously in portraying a specific slice-of-life that we nevertheless recognize as fundamentally universal.
Copyright 2018 James Kendrick
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All images copyright A24
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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