A heartfelt and very funny coming-of-age story.
There are more coming of age movies than anyone would probably want to count, but the journey from youth to (at least a little) maturity isn’t always all that interesting. A lot of times we are simply young, do a lot of dumb things, and then realize – usually a little too late – that we made a bunch of mistakes. So we make a personal vow not to do them anymore. Dust off your hands and put away your childhood: you’re more mature now.
So it is to writer/director Greta Gerwig’s credit that her new film Lady Bird (her first as a solo director) could be boiled down to such a simple essence and yet still feels distinctive, and maybe even original. The story of a teenaged girl named Christine – who insists on being called “Lady Bird” – is a constant little battle between her ego and her sentimentality. She clearly has a heart. She sometimes forgets to use it, because she’s young and trying to be cool, independent, and wise beyond her years.
High school is like that sometimes. Lady Bird’s daily life is filled with constant reminders that her classmates are, mostly, more affluent than she is. They have bigger, more rebellious ideas. They smoke. They’re in bands. They seem to have it all figured out and so Lady Bird acts like she does too, even though – just like everyone else – she doesn’t know a danged thing.
Greta Gerwig’s whimsical, heartfelt screenplay keeps Lady Bird – the movie and the character – walking that very thin line between obliviousness and wisdom. Every time she makes the wrong choice it’s because she was just about to make the right choice, and screwed up. Every time she makes the right choice we are keenly aware that what she wanted to do was the other thing. It is incredibly difficult to dramatize a person who doesn’t know who they are without coming across non-committal, and yet Gerwig’s film is explicitly about that crisis of non-commitment.
At the center of it all is a superb performance by Saoirse Ronan, who finds the effervescent joy in Lady Bird’s passions but embraces the moments when she can be truly terrible. We can watch with genuine disdain as Lady Bird emotionally wounds her mother, played by the equally superb Laurie Metcalf, just because that love takes an inconvenient form. We can clearly see what a mistake Lady Bird is making when she shuns her best friend for an opportunity to hang out with a richer, new best friend. And yet all these lousy choices come from a place of genuine yearning, and all of her decisions are tempered with her innate goodness. Even the supposedly mean-spirited prank she plays on the school’s Mother Superior tops out as “harmlessly amusing”.
Lady Bird is a small story, but it’s not a trifle. Gerwig finds playful moments in every single scene but also lingers on those scenes long enough to highlight genuine anguish. Lady Bird’s mother desperately loves her child and can’t seem to help herself from hurting her feelings anyway. Lady Bird’s father, played by Tracy Letts, makes sacrifices for every member of his family, and he’s happy for them even though he’s sad for himself. Even Lady Bird’s drama teacher is given the dignity of a genuine moment, maybe the movie’s most painful, as he comes to terms with his own deep-seated pain.
A film like Lady Bird is meant to be absorbed as a collection of characters, and a representation of the filmmaker’s personality. The story earns its moments of joy and sadness but what we should really treasure is the opportunity to meet these people – in front of and behind the camera – and learn something beautiful about them. And what better way to learn about every facet of somebody than by highlighting their journey from who they were to who they will eventually become?