‘Lady Bird’ is an Alluring Memory of a Teenager’s Coming-of-Age
Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut speaks with specificity
Lady Bird takes place in 2002. Seventeen-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) dreams of leaving Sacramento for an East-coast liberal arts college. Her family is struggling financially, especially when compared to the families of her classmates at the private Catholic school that she attends. The film follows Lady Bird in her last year of high school, where she joins the theater club, tries to fit in with the cool rich kids, gets into her first relationships, and reckons with her difficult, complicated relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf).
Lady Bird feels like a memory, a recollection of a time and a place and a certain rebellious attitude so vivid that it doesn’t require any real spectacle to feel exciting. Instead, it mines potent humor and drama from the teenage episodes that feel so small in retrospect: the pressures of fitting in, the first boyfriend, the first sexual encounter, the yearning to get away from the environment that raised you. It is a film that becomes extraordinary in the details, in the earnestness in which it portrays these relatively minor up and downs, and gives them perspective by putting them in the context of a world of adults full of genuine tumult.
The movie doesn’t reinvent the wheel. It is staunchly within the genre of the coming-of-age film, hitting plenty of familiar beats on its journey toward a teenage character that leaves some of the foolishness of youth behind, and gaining a better appreciation of what she already has. It’s a story that’s been told before, but not exactly in the way that Lady Bird tells it. It is uncommonly earnest, functioning on a level of verisimilitude that can actually get a little uncomfortable. It is almost easier to accept the dramatic confrontations of lesser films, because they are entertaining fictions. It is a little harder to sit through the passive aggression that fuels many of the interactions in this movie, because it cuts so close to home.
It is an appealing discomfort, one that indicates an openness that can be so rare in cinema. This film feels deeply personal, and gains something more genuine in its lack of overt sentimentality. This is a movie where small acts are all the more meaningful. Lady Bird and her mother might argue with each other all the time, but their true feelings shine through in the most mundane of moments: their shared excitement over the perfect dress, or their mutual enjoyment of the fantasy of living in places they could never afford. And this is just one aspect of this story. There is much more to this film than the relationship with her mother, the film containing a richness of setting that speaks to so much of the teenage experience.
As writer and director, Greta Gerwig displays a real aptitude for shooting dialogue, and a keen attention to detail that really brings the world of her characters to life. She also surrounds herself with some of the best actors around. Saoirse Ronan is wonderful as the lead character, the young actress achieving a tricky balance between visible bravado and deep, internal insecurity. Laurie Metcalf delivers one of the best performances of the year as Lady Bird’s mother, the actress so specific in her tone that it’s almost scary. And one ought to mention Beanie Feldstein, who plays Lady Bird’s best friend Julie. In a film crowded with amazing veteran actors, Feldstein feels like the discovery, a ray of light in a film already bathed in a warm glow.
I must admit, on a personal note, that Lady Bird speaks to me in very specific ways. I am the same age as Greta Gerwig, and though I was not a teenage girl growing up in Sacramento, there is so much in this milieu that created a twinge of recognition of a shared generational experience. And I am generally suspicious of the appeal of nostalgia, of the ways that art can lure one in simply through the recreation of a memory. But there is much more to Lady Bird than empty nostalgia. It is much more sincere than that, much more specific in the things that it wants to say about a teenager’s relationship to the world. It actively avoids the sentimentality of nostalgia, and gets to something more tangibly genuine.
LADY BIRD IS NOW SHOWING EXCLUSIVELY AT GREENBELT AND TRINOMA CINEMAS.
Philbert Ortiz Dy has been reviewing movies professionally since 2007, and has thus dedicated his life to being yelled at by fans of literally everyone. He is currently the Online Editor of Rogue.ph. Yell at him on Twitter at @philbertdy.