“‘Lady Bird’? Is that your given name?”
“Well, why is it in quotes?”
“I gave it to myself. It was given to me by me.”
From this exchange, one can infer exactly the type of 17 year-old that Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson is—an ardent adolescent of extreme proportions. She’s so set in her ways that she’d rather throw herself out of a moving vehicle than defer to the realistic expectations of her doting mother. Her resistance to accept the name given to her by her parents is a perfect attribute of teenage pique, and not the only form she exhibits. Lady Bird will steal her math teacher’s grading book then get suspended from her Catholic high school, and the two events won’t be related. All this being said and Saoirse Ronan still makes her out to be one of the most lovable characters of 2017. In her most memorable performance to date, the 2-time Academy Award nominee is immaculately authentic as the fervent high school graduate to-be. This story, and the character that is Lady Bird, is only made possible, however, by Greta Gerwig as a first time solo writer and director (the low-budget “Nights and Weekends” (2008) shares co-writing/directing credits with Joe Swanberg).
No stranger to starring in and scripting indie films, Greta Gerwig has yet to have sole creative control for a project behind the camera—until now. Her coming-of-age dramedy “Lady Bird” (2017) is made with such nuanced care and grace that one would assume her to be a veteran of the trade. Known more for her abilities as a writer, Gerwig does not disappoint, and it’s exemplified from the opening quotes. “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?” Christine thinks out loud. “You are from Sacramento,” her mother bluntly replies. Lady Bird and her mom, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), having just finished up the infamous college campus trip that most parent-child tandems complete during the latter’s senior year of high school, are packing up in their hotel room when this exchange occurs. In the next scene both women are shown tearing up in their car while finishing “The Grapes of Wrath” on tape. Lady Bird promptly removes the final cassette and places it back in its brick-like case (the first indicator that we are no longer in the year 2017, the second being a quintessential teenage comment delivered by Lady Bird only moments later: “The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome.”). From this point on, a relationship initially emblematic of best-friendship progressively increases in tension, showcasing just how easily a mother-daughter interaction can transform from innocent to volatile.
This is where Gerwig exhibits surprising control as a director. While the dialogue is fresh, the conventional tropes have all been seen before: Lady Bird fights with her mother, she pivots between love interests, she’s intrigued by sex, she struggles with social status. The genre is nothing new, and Gerwig isn’t intimidated by writing a familiar story because the form in which she conveys it strikes a new chord. She covers this well-known territory in new and exciting ways. It’s not so much a rehashing of old conventions but a dissection of genre, and from that comes different avenues for storytelling. Set during an uneasy time for most Americans, Gerwig focuses her lens on a character with a different perspective. Thus, the film becomes a story about a girl who doesn’t identify with a dominant ideology (“I wish I could live through something”). She, in fact, did “live through” one of the most traumatic events in recent US history, yet she doesn’t see that as having a huge impact on her life, and that’s not a bad thing; she’s choosing not to live in a state of paranoia. It’s 2002 and most US citizens are still suffering from 9/11-PTSD yet she wants nothing more than to live in New York, and she’s questioned and occasionally scolded for it. She scoffs at a Ronald Reagan poster in her boyfriend’s grandmother’s house and rebukes a worrisome comment about terrorism with “Don’t be a Republican.” There’s a feeling of resistance against the political climate we’re currently experiencing and it’s somewhat refreshing.
While Ronan shines as Lady Bird, there’s no shortage of great casting and Metcalf is also tantalizing as her “scary and warm” mother, Marion. A fountain of love and support for her only daughter, she also won’t hesitate to harshly reprimand her at a moment’s notice; she wholly embodies ‘tough love’. Tracy Letts, in an antithetical role to Metcalf, is the soft-spoken father; he prefers to hide in his computer Solitaire games than partake in the volcanic eruption between the women in his life. While he may be in between jobs and battling with depression, he’s always there for his little girl. Both being on opposite sides of the parenting spectrum, they each help Lady Bird in there own way. Meanwhile, she galavants around Sacramento (“The midwest of California” as she prefers to call it) indulging in solipsism. Her own self-discovery juggles her interests with the people in her life, whether it be her attraction to good guy Danny (Lucas Hedges) or badass Kyle (Timotheé Chalamet), or which gal-pals to spend most of her time with, she’s constantly figuring it out. It’s a beautifully accurate depiction regarding the fragility of the adolescent mind. Life can seem so ephemeral, but never more so than to a 17 year-old.
Both hilarious and heartbreaking, “Lady Bird” allows us to fall in love with not only the rebellious zeal of young Christine McPherson, but also that of which that is within ourselves. When everyone from her mother to her school’s counselor is trying to “keep her realistic,” she never gives up on her dreams. She’s feisty with a propensity to act out of instinct over logic, but she’s calculated about her every move. Ronan is magnificent, she captures that essence of a 17 year-old girl who both knows everything yet nothing at all at the same time. Her and Metcalf have unparalleled chemistry and Gerwig is the mastermind behind it all. It’s story is driven by emotion and subjectivity, and Gerwig hones in on those moments. Accordingly skimming through events like getting stoned and going to a concert, attending Thanksgiving dinner with your high school boyfriend, and other typical moments in the life of teenager, Gerwig heightens focus on visceral moments and the results are exhilarating. Her directorial career is off to an exciting start and it wouldn’t be surprising to see her and Ronan work together more like Scorsese and De Niro or Mifune and Kurosawa. In any case, the future looks bright.