Lady Bird Review
Every generation gets the teen movie it deserves and as a rebuke to the relentless negativity of the modern era, Lady Bird feels every bit the movie this generation urgently needs. Greta Gerwig’s quietly miraculous directorial debut may only be set fifteen years in the past, yet there is something equally alien and timeless about her portrayal of California in the early 2000s. The internet era hasn’t yet kicked in, the majority of characters don’t even own mobile phones, and despite taking place in-between 9/11 and George Bush’s “War on Terror” in Iraq, the emotional dramas in the lives of the characters (both old and young) appear entirely detached from the nightly horrors on the news. It’s hard to imagine similarly apolitical crises playing out in today’s society.
2002 was hardly a golden age to be a teenager; the early 2000s had a borderline perverse aversion to style, or unifying pop culture. Yet Gerwig presents it as the last simple time in American life, the perfect time to live out your High School senior year before the nightmarish toll of 21st century adult life fully started to take effect. Lady Bird works because it never avoids this aching melancholy that is lying in plain sight beneath the perfectly observed, frequently laugh out loud comedy.
In the lead role, Saoirse Ronan stars as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, who is currently entering the final year of her devoutly Catholic high school. Her family life is defined by a quasi-self loathing, by being a member of a low income family at a school populated almost entirely by rich kids who quite literally live on “the other side of the tracks”. She’s in the midst of the teenage dilemma of trying to forge out a unique identity, as well as trying to fit in with the cool crowd. In the space of a single school year, her efforts to find her own identity leads her to impulsively take up new hobbies, challenge existing friendships and enter in to a series of bizarre relationships that (in their individual moments) threaten to feel like love, ever so briefly. Meanwhile, her desire to leave California behind to venture to the East Cost to study causes ruptures in her relationship with her overprotective mother (Laurie Metcalf).
With Lady Bird, we are presented with a very specific story that’s clearly personal to Gerwig. But in spite of this, the attempts of the lead character to discover who she is represents a teenage dilemma all of us have faced at some point in our lives; it’s just seldom been translated so eloquently to the big screen. The arguments between Lady Bird and her mother, for example, feel authentic, with cruel comments being thrown from both sides - yet can be undercut in a mere matter of seconds by the slightest distraction. It’s hard to watch these sequences and not cringe slightly, thinking about how they parallel the misguided arguments you had with your own parents during your formative years.
In the film’s later stages, this triggers an even stronger emotional response at the realisation that familial bonds which appear fractured are caused by two members of the family struggling to communicate their feelings, letting anger and impulsiveness at actions they haven’t taken the time to understand get in the way. In the most elegant (and simple) manner, Gerwig asks us to think about the relationships with our own families, and it’s hard to not want to call your parents the second the end credits begin to roll. It’s only when we reflect on our time spent with family, the film suggests, that we are able to see the impact our behaviour has had on them, and can start to understand their own reactionary behaviour.
Yet despite this strong, resonant, emotional undercurrent, Lady Bird is also one of the funniest American comedies in recent memory. There are no big set pieces here, unless you count the glimpses at an awkward school musical (with lyrics written by Stephen Sondheim!), just keenly observed character moments that add up to a satisfying whole. Even the characters who feel like one note punchlines upon introduction, from the nuns who populate the high school’s staff, to a scene stealing Timothée Chalamet as the archetypal hipster douche bro, end up being more than the sum of their appearances.
Gerwig has a natural empathy towards all her characters, and her screenwriting has considerably improved since her earlier outings with Noah Baumbach to demonstrate this; there is no quirky oversimplification of character flaws here (as displayed in, for example, Frances Ha), instead showing us the flaws of the characters and asking us to understand them. That she achieves this while simultaneously poking gentle fun at them is one of Lady Bird’s significant comic accomplishments - making sure we are always laughing with the characters, even as their behaviour is never wholly empathetic.
Most of all, Lady Bird works because it understands the melodramatic social and emotional traumas of being a teenager, how all encompassing they feel in the moment - and how insignificant they feel when looked back upon in reflection. It’s a cliché to describe any movie as “universal”, yet within this very specific story, you can easily recount your own experiences and turbulent relationships, from friendships and family relationships to awkward first attempts at romance.
Considering her collaborations with Baumbach could be written off as “first world problems” comedies, the big surprise is that Lady Bird also understands the quiet woes of growing up in a working class environment. At one moment, I was unexpectedly brought to tears due to the film confronting that distinct teenage feeling of hoping to outgrow your surroundings and move somewhere better at the first available opportunity - all while harbouring a secret love for the same neighbourhood you frequently mock. There are numerous moments like this, where feelings I have failed to put in to words find themselves articulated so beautifully as part of Lady Bird’s own formative story.
Yes, Lady Bird a fantastic teen comedy, but it feels so much more than that. There’s an intuitiveness to Gerwig’s masterful screenplay that, in its own way, feels quietly profound, every bit as relatable on this side of the pond as it will be to those who grew up in the boring Sacramento suburbs. I can’t wait to go back and fall in love with this film all over again.