Director: Greta Gerwig
Talent: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Timothée Chalamet
Released: 16 February
They say cinema is a director’s medium, but it’s writer-director Greta Gerwig’s pitch perfect script that shines from the very beginning of her latest film Lady Bird. Driving home from a college visit, the relative peace between Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and her hard-working mom Marion unravels into a marvelous tangle of passive-aggression, by turns relatable, uproarious and appalling. Lady Bird’s desperate desire to escape her life in Sacramento and attend an East Coast university hurts her mother. “You can’t even pass your driver’s test,” Marion remarks acidly. It’s a well-worn argument, but Lady Bird manages to one-up her mom this time: she jumps out of the moving car.
Most coming of age stories feature a love story, or a triumph over an adversary. Lady Bird’s transformation, on the other hand, is in her exquisitely detailed relationship with her mother and her hometown, while her boyfriends and her best friend (played with quiet courage and infectious fun by Beanie Feinstein) teach her valuable lessons along the way. There are no real bad guys here, only people whose goodness is at odds with one another’s; no evil force, only uncomfortable truths, and the women who live honestly enough to tell them.
And boy, does Lady Bird live honestly. In a revelatory performance by Saoirse Ronan (which has already garnered her a best actress award), the titular teen is ferocious, funny, unabashed, determined to live by her own standards. Watching this young woman want things — from a boy in a band to a part in a musical — and go after them with gusto is a rare joy. Her sheer certainty in her own exuberant feelings and desires — sometimes she screams for pure joy or anger — make even her worst decisions vital, likeable, and spellbinding to watch.
“You can’t be warm and scary,” Lady Bird snaps at her first boyfriend. “I think you can,” he responds, “your mom is.” In fact, Gerwig as writer and director pulls remarkably elastic performances from a stellar cast, so that even characters with the smallest amount of screen time each contain multitudes. Laurie Metcalf as Marion gives the performance of a career; Tracy Letts shines as Lady Bird’s kindly but hapless father. It doesn’t hurt that Gerwig brings together a team with serious acting chops, with young stars like Timothée Chalamet (whose sensitive, complex performance in Call Me By Your Name stunned in late 2017) Lucas Hedges (of Manchester by the Sea fame) and stalwart standouts like Lois Smith and Stephen Henderson, for her smaller roles. With penetrating precision, Gerwig and her cast spin a web of stories around Lady Bird’s own; you feel you could move to Sacramento and spend decades making compelling movies about each character. Sure, the film is episodic and gawky at points — Lady Bird and her friends make a few grand and perhaps unearned proclamations. But who doesn’t, as a teenager?
In her Oscar nomination for best director, Gerwig became only the fifth woman to achieve this status. Lady Bird doesn’t have the big action scenes of Dunkirk or the CGI legwork of The Shape of Water. The design evokes the early 2000s, recalling the hit TV show Gilmore Girls and Noah Baumbach’s The Squid and the Whale; even the dewy golden light and lens flares suggest early Instagram filters and iMac photobooth pictures. But to dismiss Gerwig’s work as nostalgic or unoriginal is to miss the point: she makes us feel like Lady Bird, balancing the influences that created her even as she forges ahead. By the end, Lady Bird is in the driver’s seat, and all I want to do is crank the Dave Matthews and ride shotgun on her next trip.
Words: Madeleine Saidenberg
Illustration: Fuchsia MacAree