'Lady Bird': Gerwig Spreads Her Wings

Lady Bird
(USA, 93 min.)
Written and directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalfe, Tracy Letts, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet
Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe star in Lady Bird
Elevation Picures
Is Lady Bird the Pretty in Pink for millennials? This beautiful coming of age story by Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Jackie) is a down to earth depiction of the growing pains of adolescence and all the pleasures and (mostly) awkwardness it brings. Gerwig makes her first solo debut as director (she previously directed Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg) and Lady Bird radiates the warm and offbeat charm one has come to love in Gerwig’s performances and screenplays. Lady Bird unabashedly gives a tale of girlhood with its angst-ridden and infectiously funny search for the meaning of life that one often struggles to grasp in adolescence. It’s a buoyant and joyously feel-good film.

The same spirit resides in Gerwig’s heroine Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), a spunky individualist who feels suffocated and unstimulated in her blah-blah middle class ’hood. Lady Bird has the heart of a poetic and she yearns to unleash her creative spirit, but can’t really connect with anything at her square Catholic high school and uncultured community. This pent-up energy makes Lady Bird a high school iconoclast, but, significantly, she’s a likable and endearing rebel.

Lady Bird’s awkward clumsiness, reminiscent of Frances’s recurring word vomit in Frances Ha, is hitting its peak because the young woman faces the toughest choice a teenager will have to make: what to do after graduation. Nothing prepares someone for this experience (nor for the disappointment that inevitably comes after) and Lady Bird isn’t going to settle in life so easily. Her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalfe), doesn’t have very high expectations for Lady Bird and suggests that community college is the best bet for someone with her work ethic. Lady Bird wants more, though, like a university experience in a city full of life, arts, and culture: New York.

The Bird decides to spread her wings in her final year of high school by joining the drama league with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein, sister of actor Jonah Hill and every bit as funny). On the stage, she meets fellow thespian Danny (Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges), who becomes her first boyfriend with all the highs and lows (mostly lows) that experience brings. The disappointments Lady Bird encounters in her extracurricular efforts inspire her to run with a different crowd and feed her rebellious spirit. She isn’t fair to her friends or to her true self.

It’s refreshing to see young people who talk like real teenagers, act like real teenagers, and screw up like real teenagers. Gerwig’s smart, funny, and observant screenplay captures growing pains with warmth and candour. The film is attune to the anxieties that come with failing to feel at home with one’s self or one’s surroundings, but the spirit of the film and its spunky protagonist find the pleasures of being an outsider.

The story takes place in Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento, California. It’s a tale of suburban malaise told by an authentic voice that shares an affinity with the place that raised her, but without any regrets for going out into the world and charting her own path. Lady Bird dials back to 2002 and observes the final high school year of America’s first post-9/11 class. The film doesn’t dwell on the paranoia and politics of the Bush years, but economic hardships hit the family when Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts, Indignation) loses his job and makes Marion extra-stressed. Gerwig playfully uses this contemporary chapter of history as the setting for comedy’s first true period film of the 2000s. It’s funny to recall the days when only select friends had cell phones and the possession of a mobile offered a kind of class-consciousness or a sign of easygoing parents. At the same time, Lady Bird captures the look and feel of the era with uncontrived authenticity. It’s so refreshing to hear a filmmaker use Dave Matthews Band unironically for an emotional cue.

It helps, too, that Saoirse Ronan is note-perfect as the titular rebel. It turns out that the young actress has a great comedic side that’s been hiding, but her sassy sense of timing ensures that more comedies are to come. Much like her performance as Eilis in Brooklyn, Ronan’s Lady Bird comes to life through a deeply natural performance. Ronan carries herself without affectations or self-conscious airs, which can be tricky when playing a character like Lady Bird who doesn’t yet feel comfortable in her own spotted shell. There’s something wonderfully lived-in yet youthful about Ronan’s performance here: she really gets this character and relates to the awkward messiness of adolescence and the struggle of finding yourself when everyone else tries to force you to play another part. As Lady Bird gradually comes into her own, Ronan gives her best performance yet.

Ronan is especially strong in her scenes with Metcalfe. The mother/daughter relationship forms the heart of the film as Lady Bird and Marion antagonize one another with their clash of free-spirited rebellion versus level-headed responsibility. The selflessness of Marion’s love for her daughter is palpable, but Gerwig deepens the relationship by empathizing with Lady Bird when her mom misses a beat in pushing her daughter to be her best self. Take one scene, for example, where Lady Bird saunters home, floating in romantic bliss after her first kiss with Danny. Marion pops the balloon by berating Lady Bird for her messy room, and Ronan’s touching performance creates a daughter betrayed by her nagging mother’s unconscious choice to rob her of this moment. Metcalfe matches Ronan beat for beat with a natural performance to create a lived-in and relatable character, as does Letts in another impressive turn in his recent string of supporting roles. The best performance comes from Gerwig, however, in her breakout role as director. Greta Gerwig delivers a refreshing, down to earth comedy with Lady Bird that gives one pause to cherish the place we call home.

Lady Bird is now in theatres.