When I tell people I live in California I get two replies: “What part do you live in?” and “How close are you to Hollywood.” This belief that so much of what defines California is its glamour is in the very soul of Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird. A teenage girl’s coming-of-age is nothing new, but Gerwig’s characters boast three-dimensional personalities; her voice clearly comes through and connects on a personal level with anyone who’s experienced the American high school; her thoughts and feelings are both her own, and yet ours as well. Make no mistake, Lady Bird gets into your bones and you won’t want to get it out.
Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) hates her life, her hometown, even her name. Dubbing herself “Lady Bird,” Christine has plans to flee her Sacramento hometown after graduation and go to an East Coast college. The problem is getting her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) to agree. In the meantime Lady Bird struggles to find herself in the wake of changing friends, desires, and boys.
To discuss what Gerwig achieves with Lady Bird is to delve into a state of mind that’s funny, painful, poignant and relatable. Too often movies focused on capturing a teenager’s transition into adulthood feels like watching that Steve Buscemi “fellow kids” clip play out. Gerwig doesn’t try to capture the quirky zeitgeist and lingo a la Diablo Cody’s Juno – though comparisons will abound. Instead she taps into the minutiae of teenagedom: crying to a song with your best friend because you believe the universe finally understands you; having the umpteenth argument with your mother about how “everything doesn’t revolve around you.” These moments feel both generic and painfully specific. Gerwig talks about your life through her own.
And make no mistake, Lady Bird is a deeply personal picture for the director. Filmed throughout the Sacramento area, she shows a side of suburban America that’s often not explored. Lady Bird dreams of living in a big house she passes by daily, meanwhile she’s forced to shop at the local Thrift Town. (As a Sacramento native for nearly 20 years, Gerwig made me feel woefully ignorant about my own town.) Maybe because Sacramento isn’t photographed as often as other locales but it’s middle-American look coupled with the obvious class distinctions create tension without drawing attention to it. Locals to the area will laugh at a character stating they live in “Granite Bay,” mainly because of what that means in terms of wealth.
At its heart the film is about a mother and daughter at odds with each other. Ronan’s Lady Bird is dramatic and selfish at times, but she also desperately wants to please her mother. The young actress has never sparkled as much as she does with this film; it’s the role of her career. Metcalf as well as spellbinding as Marion. The two actresses have a fantastic rapport based around passive aggressively needling each other in that way mothers and daughters do.
The two know each other’s weaknesses and exploit them, often without meaning to. Marion can’t just tell Lady Bird she looks nice, commenting that a dress is “so pink.” Lady Bird puts her mother on the carpet asking how much she “owes” her mother for raising her. The characters aren’t bad, but often engage in behavior that feels good in the moment, but have long-term repercussions. And yet for all of Ronan and Metcalfe’s awkward hilarity bickering with each other, the love is evident. Characters will say Lady Bird’s mother is too hard on her, only for the girl to retort “she has a big heart.” These are two women who refuse to let anyone hurt the other but them. During a director’s Q&A Gerwig said she wanted to equate the relationship between the two characters like a romantic drama, complete with a heartwrenching scene through an airport that will have you dialing your mother immediately after.
There’s not a bad castmember in the bunch, making for the year’s best ensemble. The aforementioned Ronan and Metcalfe do the heavy lifting but they’re complimented by so many talented individuals. Tracy Letts’ sensitive portrayal of the family patriarch brings some much needed balance to the household; the same feelings are evoked by Jordan Rodrigues as Lady Bird’s brother Miguel. Beanie Feldstein is darling as Lady Bird’s bestie Julie. It’s obvious she loves her friend, and yet can’t help but feel envious of her – putting the name “Julie” in quotes as if it’s a name she similarly invented. As Lady Bird’s paramours both Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet are fantastic as varying versions of the guys (or girls) you probably dated in high school. Hedges’ nice guy theater geek has a plot twist that’s easily deduced, while Chalamet as the pretentious bad boy who thinks cell phones are tracking devices is hilarious if you realize he’d do really well in 2017.
Lady Bird is a masterpiece. Affecting, emotional, funny, painful. It’ll make you feel things and transport you to a time you thought you’d gotten over, only to have everything come rushing back to you. Greta Gerwig proves she’s a directorial force to be reckoned with.