Lady Bird (2017)
Time to fly
If you haven’t already heard of writer-performer-director Greta Gerwig, things are probably about to change. A thirtysomething actress best known for her work in indie darlings such as Damsels in Distress (2011), Frances Ha (2012) and 20th Century Women (2016), Gerwig made headlines late last year when her semi-autobiographical directorial debut, Lady Bird, surpassed Toy Story 2 (1999) to become the best rated film ever on Rotten Tomatoes, obtaining the largest number of back-to-back ‘Fresh’ reviews when it was first released in the States (last November); a title which now belongs to Paddington 2 (2017).
Sincere, personal and real, Lady Bird is a quirky coming-of-age dramedy that follows a precocious 17-year-old who’s on the brink of adulthood as she weaves through an array of problems, including her flaky adolescent friendships, burgeoning sexuality and her criticizing mother, the year before she leaves the nest and darts off to college, where ‘real life’ is supposed to begin. What follows is a generally straight-forward mumblecore narrative, which is elevated by a handful of amusing moments and couple of nice performances from Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn (2015), who portrays Gerwig’s surrogate and the titular ‘Lady Bird,’ and Laurie Metcalf — in her meatiest role since 1988’s Roseanne — as her tough love mother, Marion McPherson.
Set in Sacramento, California, in 2002, Lady Bird opens when Christine McPherson, who’s branded herself with the name ‘Lady Bird,’ is being chaperoned by her mom, who’s checking out local colleges for her daughter to attend, ones that are within driving range of their suburban working-class home, which is literally on the wrong side of the tracks. You see, Lady Bird is somewhat ashamed of her plain, boring family, her simple house and their lack of disposable money, our sharp-tongued protagonist convinced that she’d outgrown her unexciting hometown and deemed it necessary to head over to the East Coast, because ‘apparently,’ that’s where the culture is. Attending a private Catholic girls school by virtue of a scholarship, Lady Bird spends most her days with her bestie, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), the pair scoffing their faces with cheap snacks or venturing into wealthy nearby neighborhoods, where they’d fantasize about the lives of the rich and fabulous.
Structured around her senior year at said school, Lady Bird is semi-episodic in nature and treads a lot of familiar water, seeing as films about the ‘teenage experience’ have been explored from every which way. Throughout the narrative, Christine and Julie sign up for a school musical, where Lady Bird meets her first boyfriend, a decent, upright kid named Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges), who seems a little too good to be true, before moving onto her second beau, Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet), a lazy, obnoxious sod, who’s part of a rock band and winds up playing a big part in Lady Bird’s awkward first sexual encounter. Another conflict arises when Lady Bird makes friends with a ‘cooler,’ well off rich girl named Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), which causes a riff between BFFs Christine and Julie.
There are also problems at home, where Christine resides with her mother, out-of-work father Larry (playwright Tracy Letts), and adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), along with his live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott). Longing for sophistication, freedom and opportunity, Lady Bird hatches a secret plan, with her mild-mannered dad, to apply for another grant for an out-of-town college without telling her mom, a busy psychiatric nurse who’s working double shifts, bending over backwards to provide for her family.
Of its numerous themes and ideas, Lady Bird is at its best when it’s exploring adolescence, particularly the need for teenagers to pave their own paths in life, even if that means rejecting their parents’ advice, which may-or-may-not lead them into making a few avoidable mistakes. Gerwig highlights this quite early on, when we see the hostile Lady Bird throw herself out of a moving car in order to escape her overly opinionated mom, our leading lady forced to wear a hot pink arm cast for a large duration of the picture as a result.
This turbulent mother-daughter bond is brought to life by exceptional performances from its two leads, who have both been nominated for big acting awards at this year’s Oscars, Saoirse Ronan — who kinda-sorta looks like a younger version of filmmaker Gerwig — and Laurie Metcalf. Festooned with a shoddy blood-red dye job and an acne-covered face, Ronan does her best to do justice to the rebellious Christine, the 23-year-old Irish/ American actress ensuring that our passive-aggressive teenage dreamer (in search of her own individuality) remains likeable throughout. The MVP, however, is Laurie Metcalf who portrays Christine’s brutally honest yet caring mother, who’s trying her darndest to do what she thinks is best for her daughter, fracturing their already rocky relationship in the process. As with most strong-minded people, one wrong move could set either of these two off, and it’s a treat watching the duo traverse through the minefield of one another’s lofty emotions.
Beanie Feldstein, Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016), stands out as Julie, Lady Bird’s nerdy friend who lives in a modest apartment with her single mother, Julie’s unrequited love for a young math teacher clearly the result of a lack of male role models in her life. Elsewhere, Lois Smith, Hollywoodland (2006), is good as Sister Sarah Joan, who appears to be the only person that understands what Lady Bird is going through, while Stephen McKinley Henderson, Fences (2016), offers gravitas as the girls’ unwell drama teacher, Father Leviatch, whom Marion tends to in hospital. On the topic of drama teachers, the flick’s biggest laughs (for me anyway) come from a sketch comedy-type gag from Bob Stephenson, Friends with Money (2006), who plays the school’s football coach Father Walther, a boisterous loudmouth that gets drafted into directing the senior production of The Tempest and hasn’t a clue what he’s doing — side-splitting stuff!
Honing her craft while working and collaborating with filmmakers such as Noah Baumbach, Joe Swanberg and Whit Stillman, Greta Gerwig makes her presence clear in each and every frame of her first solo-credited project. Honestly written, lovingly performed and never showy, Lady Bird is an assured freshman film that signals a bright future for the talented Gerwig, even if it doesn’t belong on major awards lists, beside bigger and better titles. At the end of the day, Greta may have left her hometown of Sacramento behind, but Lady Bird proves that, somewhere along the way, she’s realized that home is where the heart is.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
Lady Bird is released through Universal Pictures Australia