Greta Gerwig’s impressive directorial debut stars Saoirse Ronan as a 17 year-old desperate to get away from her Californian town and Catholic high school in order to be somebody – she’s just not quite sure what kind of somebody she wants to be yet.
Lets get this out of the way: As the awards season gathers pace, Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut Lady Bird is in severe danger of being overhyped. Be warned, it’s the kind of modest, indie coming-of-age story we’ve seen a million times. Set in a vaguely nostalgic 2002 and 2003, it’s episodic and stylistically simple, with a guitar-heavy soundtrack. It hits the familiar beats: Prom Night, painful conflicts with parents and falling outs with best friends; the pursuit of popularity, the loss of virginity and the wisdom that comes when grand dreams crunch up against reality. But Lady Bird is written, directed and performed with such tenderness, spiky humour and attention to detail, that it’s a delight to behold.
Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a dramatic and somewhat pretentious 17-year-old who insists on being called by the name ‘Lady Bird’. Her kind-hearted father, Larry (Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor Tracy Letts), is a computer programmer struggling with depression and unemployment. Her overworked mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), puts in double shifts as a nurse to support the family and send Christine to a Catholic school, where she’s a merely mediocre student. It’s no wonder that Marion rolls her eyes in exasperation whenever Christine talks about her dreams of attending an expensive East Coast college, far away from the dull but pretty suburbs where they live. (“Sacramento is like the mid-west of California,” Christine whines, just like another discontented Sacramento character this year, Ben Stiller’s Brad in Brad’s Status.) And yet Lady Bird plays like an inadvertent love letter to the humble charms of that very particular place in America.
Lady Bird’s depiction of the intense and difficult relationship between a commonsense mother and her whimsical daughter is pitch perfect in its mix of love, disappointment and resentment. “I just want you to be the best possible version of yourself,” the mother insists as she casts a critical eye on her daughter outside a thrift-store changing-room. “But what if this is the best version of myself?” Christine asks, longing for maternal acceptance. The pained look on her mother’s face is more eloquent and devastating than any words, and Metcalf’s superb and nuanced performance in is deservedly winning her accolades.
Other performances shine too. The fearless Saoirse Ronan, with spotty skin, dyed red hair and choker necklaces, is almost unrecognizable as homesick Irish rose in John Crowley’s Brooklyn (2015) or the cool child assassin of Joe Wright’s Hannah (2011). Beanie Feldstein is also fresh and convincing as the socially awkward best friend, while Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name) is hilarious as the pseudo-intellectual anarchist boyfriend who constantly spouts conspiracy theories. Then there’s Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) playing a theatre-loving gay boy too scared to come out. It’s in these relationships that the heroine reveals herself in all her insecurity, vanity and unintended deadpan wit.
As an actress and writer, Greta Gerwig has long been an indie darling, a poster girl for a certain kind of awkward-but-graceful millennial middle-youth. From her writing and acting collaborations with low-budget auteur Joe Swanberg (Hannah Takes the Stairs, 2007; and Nights and Weekends, 2008) through to more recent collaborations with her real life partner, Noah Baumberg (Frances Ha, 2012; and Mistress America, 2015), Gerwig has grown in range and skill, often showing herself to be a brilliant slapstick comedian and far less clueless than she sometimes seems. Her finely honed performance as a determined Quaker home-wrecker in Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan (2015) suggested that as an actress she’s capable of far greater things than being the Normcore ‘It-Girl’.
In Lady Bird, Gerwig stays behind the camera, not even allowing herself a brief cameo. It’s a wise strategy, focusing commentary on what she does instead of how she looks. (So many column inches have been devoted to dissecting Gerwig’s physical appeal.) And what she does as a director is to build scenes that have emotional weight and dramatic momentum, so much so that at one point, the simple opening of a letter feels as momentous as an earthquake.
Perhaps some of the critical celebration now being heaped upon Lady Bird’s narrow shoulders is also an acknowledgement of Gerwig’s own success in escaping the role of muse and collaborator; of having made the bold move to single-handedly tell her own stories. If Lady Bird is any indication, she will continue from strength to strength, and that’s something to look forward to.
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A California high school student plans to escape from her family and small town by going to college in New York.