Director: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein
Although having dabbled in behind-the-camera work on films previously, actress Greta Gerwig’s true debut as a writer/director has been very well-received thus far. With five Oscar nominations (at the time of writing – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress for Ronan, Best Supporting Actress for Metcalf and Best Original Screenplay), two Golden Globe wins (Best Picture – Musical or Comedy and Best Actress) and three BAFTA nominations, Lady Bird is positively dripping with prestige. A story about a young girl’s coming-of-age, in particular her relationship with her mother, Gerwig has chosen what is really quite a delicate and deep subject matter to pursue. Despite the praise heaped on Gerwig and her cast and crew, has she really struck gold with Lady Bird, or is it just another comedy aimed at the foibles of coming to the end of teenage life?
Set in 2002 Sacaramento, California, seventeen-year-old Christine, or as she prefers to be known, “Lady Bird” (Ronan), is coming to the end of her time in high school. We are taken through her final year as she submits her applications, deals with her turbulent relationship with her mother, Marion (Metcalf), goes through the motions with boyfriends – first Danny (Hedges), later Kyle (Chalamet) – and learns from her relationship with best friend Julie (Feldstein) what happens when you put misters before sisters. As a basic story it’s not the most original, however Gerwig’s natural and relatable narrative gives it its own voice amongst the swell of coming-of-age stories.
Gerwig’s choices in actors is absolutely spot on. As the titular Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan, much like Timothée Chalamet, is perhaps one of the best actresses of her generation. She is electric onscreen and makes it incredibly easy to lose yourself in Lady Bird’s life (depending on your experiences as a teenager that could be either good or bad). As a young woman of twenty-three, Ronan is still young enough to perhaps recall what her teen years were like and give a sense of legitimacy in everything that Lady Bird says and does. Laurie Metcalf as Marion is also just as superb – she will make you want to call your mother and beg forgiveness for all the self-absorbed things you did and for being so ignorant (unless you were a rare “good” teenager). Metcalf’s performance will evoke memories many adults will have of their mother when they were Lady Bird’s age and will likely make them see things a lot differently, particularly if they are yet to have or do not want their own children. Together, Ronan and Metcalf’s chemistry as mother and daughter is so real that it resonates through the screen right into your mind and, without getting too cheesy, your heart.
Although Lady Bird as a character is a fairly accurate portrayal of a teenage girl, her confidence and rebelliousness is possibly not quite as relatable as her other traits, at least in a school setting. In high school, girls of a status such as Lady Bird’s (not so well-off, doesn’t dress entirely to impress boys) are more likely to be shy and/or quiet, in an effort to fit in or to at least not stand out in a negative way (generally speaking). This puts Lady Bird herself almost at ‘heroine’ status, as many young girls may look up to her brashness and buoyancy, despite her really being a quintessential antihero. Gerwig has stated that Lady Bird isn’t a story taken directly from her own life and/or personal experiences, however it’s clear to see that it depicts many experiences most, if not all, young females will encounter at some point, whether they are similar to Lady Bird or not. It’s this that will pull in girls of all backgrounds and social standing, regardless of who they are.
Gerwig’s ability to put to paper and then commit to film such a raw and detailed recount of a year in a young girl’s life is genius. That might sound like overkill, but, as many adults may know, purposely recalling your teenage years isn’t anyone’s idea of fun. A lot of the experiences that really helped define us and set us up for the rest of our adult lives are generally forgotten, ironically. Gerwig has managed to reach into the abyss in which we throw the past we wish to forget and throws it right back into our lives again. And rightly so. History is always doomed to repeat itself unless we remember why things happened the first time around, and films such as Lady Bird are so important for anyone of any age to keep the past present and attempt to help the next generations as they navigate their way into adulthood. It’s in that where Gerwig’s brilliance lies – she reminds us of something that should be so simple to recall and yet we, as unnecessarily difficult humans, decide to make it complex by firmly putting it all behind us. If this is something we can expect from Gerwig in the future, then we can certainly await her next writer/director project with much (anxious) anticipation.
It’s difficult not to write about this film from a more personal perspective. As an almost 30-year-old woman, I try not to recall my teenage years, at least not in detail: the often embarrassing encounters with boys, the arguments with my brothers, sisters and mother that rarely ended without a trip to A&E, falling out with friends and making up again, trying to figure out who I was supposed to be whilst trying to retain a sense of independence and freedom. Lady Bird touches on just about everything I could have possibly gone through as a teenager. It brought all the feelings flooding back, particularly at seventeen: preparing to go to university, to leave and virtually reject the very small place I grew up in for somewhere bigger and more exciting, and taking control of my life and indulging in that coveted independence and freedom that meant I could be who I wanted to be rather than, according to some, who I was supposed to be. In that sense I related to many aspects of the film, so much so that I certainly felt tears in my eyes a couple of times, even during scenes that had no particular emotional leverage – it was just a matter of completely understanding Lady Bird, both character and story. I almost felt exposed in a small half-packed cinema auditorium, as though it was my life playing out onscreen. I don’t doubt a lot of the many young females in the audience felt the same (I wouldn’t like to speak for the older female viewers, but I suppose that, if they have children, they may have related to the film more from Marion’s perspective), but it still felt like a very personal story. Gerwig has created something that I don’t doubt will prove to be timeless.