2017, PG-13, 93 mins.
Saoirse Rona as Chrstine / Laurie Metcalf as Marion / Lucas Hedges as Danny / Lois Smith as Sister Sarah / Tracy Letts as Larry / Beanie Feldstein as Julie / Timothee Chalament as Kyle
Written and directed by Greta Gerwig
There have been many coming of age films that have traversed the life and times of an adolescent going through a tumultuous year in school, but very few are as exceptionally well written, flawlessly acted, and authentically rendered as LADY BIRD.
directed with great observational honesty by Greta Gerwig - making her
solo directorial debut - the film deals with a rather troubled young girl
as she tries to make it through her final year at her Catholic high
school, and based on that description alone it would be deceptively easy
to see where this underlining material could have went wrong.
Thankfully, this semi-autobiographical film for Gerwig wisely
avoids stale and regurgitated clichés while reminding viewers that well
past their prime genres can be infused with a newly minted lease on life
with just the right innovative eye. LADY
BIRD also unequivocally proves that humbly scaled films can still pack
strong and lasting dramatic punches.
In many respects,
Gerwig's film reminded me considerably of last year's sublime and
underrated THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN,
another teen centric dramedy that had an oftentimes uncompromising truth
and pathos about its tale of what young people deal with while eking out
their young adult lives. That
overlooked film was handled with the utmost care and tact, and in much the
same manner Gerwig imbues LADY BIRD the same level of hilarious
bittersweetness and nerve wracking pathos that allows her film to take on
the feel of a fly on the wall documentary of one girl's daily struggles.
Gerwig also wisely never drums up false and manufactured
sentimentality in her story, nor does she drown the film in cloying
artificiality. Most of her
characters are flawed and engage in selfishly behavior that's unpardonably
damaging to those around them. Yet,
that's the subtle brilliance of LADY BIRD: It delivers stinging truths
well past the point where they hurt the most, which allows the film to
simmer with more unnerving veracity.
BIRD shows Saoirse Ronan at the complete command of her performance craft.
The 23-year-old Irish talent has given one bravura and varied
performance after another, like in the action thriller HANNA,
the period drama BROOKLYN, and the
richly farcical THE GRAND
BUDAPEST HOTEL. Here
she plays the titular character, a nickname that she's given herself and
insists that seemingly everyone around her call her by.
Lady Bird's birth name is Christine McPherson and she resides -
like the Gerwig in real life growing up - in Sacramento, California and on
the wrong side of the tracks (not a metaphor...her family literally
lives on the bad side of the railway tracks).
Set in the early 2000's, LADY BIRD deals with its young protagonist
attending a rather progressive minded Catholic school, which her mother
Marion (a superb Laurie Metcalf) hopes will help cultivate her into a fine
young woman free from sin. Christine
seems to relish in anti-social behavior at the school, whether it take the
form of eating communion wafers like potato chips or, in one spirited and
rebellious instance, dressing up one of the nun's cars with "Just
Married to Jesus" graffiti.
relatively happy-go-lucky on the outside, Christine almost venomously
hates living in Sacramento and yearns for a time when she can move away to
the furthest college she can to escape.
This, of course, doesn't sit well with Marion, whose "warm and
scary" overprotective and sometimes unhealthily honest disposition
with her daughter creates multiple emotional roadblocks throughout the
film. To make matters worse,
Christine's dad (a quietly melancholic Tracy Letts) is unemployed and
chronically depressed. Christine
decides to make what she can of her morose situation by joining the
school's musical production of Stephen Sondheim's MERRILY WE ROLL ALONG,
during which times she starts crushing on the sexually conflicted and
geeky Danny (MANCHESTER BY SEA's
terrifically natural Lucas Hedges). After
that relationship goes down the toilet, Christine finds herself lusting
after a cool and collected musician (Timothee Chalamet), which eventually
puts her at a distance with her BFF (Beanie Feldstein).
Complicating matters altogether are Chrstine's superiors, who
constantly remind her that her grades are not adequate enough to get a
scholarship in the prestigious colleges she wants to attend.
attention to the small and subtle details of how her characters talk are
among LADY BIRD's largest triumphs. When
people speak each other in this film it's filled with lively and specific
wordplay that accurately captures the ebbs and flows of how they would
talk in real life. Some of
the individual dialogue exchanges are remarkably economical, with a few
keys words being used to help sell key moments; characters enunciate in a
refreshing shorthand. That,
and Gerwig displays a confidence with her underlining themes that helps
cement this film well apart from a crowded pack.
LADY BIRD is a story about a rule breaking and authority defying
teenager, to be sure, but it's also an commentary on how teens make
impractically poor and damaging decisions in life while trying to grow up,
and all while embarking on a spiritual and sexual awakening that can be
awkward and humiliating. LADY
BIRD does have some familiar troupes, but it never goes for obvious
audience placating payoffs. The
gritty lived in approach here allows for the discontentment of many of the
film's characters to be simultaneously unbearable to watch and oddly
is an endlessly fascinating character; deep down she's a sensitive and
caring individual, but outwardly she's capable of behaving toxically
towards those who have her best interests at heart. She frequently lives within a tight and nearly impenetrable
bubble of self-importance, which subsequently leads to her committing one
social mistake after another and then being faced to deal with the
disastrous ramifications. Her
self-loathing stems from her lower class existence, which she feels
stymies any and all opportunity for her.
Ronan has been astoundingly poised in many films before, but here
she bravely thrusts herself headfirst into this spitefully impulsive
anti-heroine with a never look back relish.
Blessed with exemplary comic timing and a low key manner of cutting
to the dramatic heart of scenes with minimal fuss, Ronan convincingly
crafts a beleaguered portrait of teen angst.
She also never makes Christine a figure of easy likeability; this
is a self absorbed girl that does harm to herself and others in all ways
preventable. Yet, she's
nevertheless and inviting personality despite her questionable
transgressions, which is a testament to Ronan's chameleon-like ability to
inhabit any character she attempts.
Unlike so many
other teen centric films, LADY BIRD never paints the parental figures as
one-note and unsympathetic stooges. Gerwig's
script is atypically democratic in terms of getting into the mindset of
Christine's mother as well, who's arguably just self-centered as her
offspring. LADY BIRD is
ultimately about the intersection between Christine's needs and those of
Marion's, and the headache inducing confrontations that both have with
each other throughout. Both
women are sometimes frustratingly stubborn and seem like cold reflections
of each other, which leaves many of their verbal battles at uneasy
stalemates. The failure of
their relationship is one of communication and mutual empathy for the
other's prerogative. Christine
emboldens herself against her mother in her quest for absolute independence
from her, whereas Marion steadfastly strikes back against her daughter's
desire for autonomy, often letting her anxieties about her boil over in
scenes of damning honesty. Metfalf has arguably the trickiest role in the film,
seeing as she has to play a vulnerable and wounded woman with hidden
emotional pains and understandable motives that also happens to be
overbearingly aggressive in unsupportive ways to her child, and it's one of
the most layered portrayals of an imperfect matriarch that I've seen in a film
in quite some time.
LADY BIRD is also screamingly funny at times and contains scenes that are absurdist gems, like, for instance, one moment that features Christine going into a local convenience store to buy a lottery ticket, a pack of cigarettes, and a Playgirl magazine on her 18th birthday...not because she wants these items, but rather because she feels empowered by her ability to legally do so. Moments like this are emblematic of how much precise care and attention that Gerwig has painstakingly taken to juggle LADY BIRD's multiple tones. The 34-year-old has given memorable performances in the past, in particular in Noah Baumbach indies like FRANCES HA and MISTRESS AMERICA, and she acclimates herself astonishingly well with her transition to a soulful filmmaker with something fundamental to add to the coming of age genre conversation. LADY BIRD is a small and unassuming film made with modesty by a rookie director, but its triumphs are as grand and noteworthy. Expertly teetering between high hilarity and devastating dramatic turmoil in equal measure, LADY BIRD is one the most refreshing surprises of 2017.