Lizzi Sandell on Greta Gerwig’s ‘Lady Bird’ (2017)
Lady Bird takes place in sleepy Sacramento, California—at the turn of the century, in the wake of 9/11. An ill-adjusted Catholic school girl is graduating from a cloistered existence into an uncertain world. Hers is a suburbia tinged with sadness (isn’t all suburbia built on a foundation of small, private tragedies?)—It is one of depressed priests, haves and have-nots, sick or unemployed fathers, and anxious mothers. A whole well of feeling exists beneath this Sacramento story, for which the term “coming-of-age” seems basically accurate but grossly insufficient.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (an iridescent Saoirse Ronan of Brooklyn fame) is both clueless and endearingly wise. She is continually growing out of awkward phases and into new, equally awkward ones. After a perceptive Sister suggests that her “performative streak” might be better served in the school’s theatre club, a generally wayward and chaotic Lady Bird has a brief spell of belonging: she gains a hopelessly dreamy (read: cheesy) star-of-the-show boyfriend (Danny, played by Lucas Hedges), gets to spend Thanksgiving with his enviable, upper-middle class family, and experiences her first weed-induced fit of infectious kitchen giggles.
Later, enticed by a self-serious, mercurial, new superhunk—Kyle, played by Timothee Chamalet—she abandons theatre and moves onto a cooler crowd. We enjoy her social mobility with a hint of foreboding; it is an uncomfortable fit for a spirited, complex, “weird” girl whose idiosyncratic family are perpetually on the brink of financial collapse. Cue: the unspoken pain of owning too little and caring too much. Although naïve enough to fall for Kyle’s mysterious, thick eyebrows and affectation of near-constant reading, when he tries to justify his shitty romantic behaviour by comparing it favourably to civilian deaths in Iraq, Lady Bird tells him, with transcendent wisdom, “Different things can be sad at the same time. Not everything is war.”
Moments like this are clumsy teen triumphs, and I felt them all intensely. Writer-director Greta Gerwig has created a master class in striking balances. Am-dram is treated with just enough humour and warmth; it is on the one hand totally silly, and on the other, joyous and transformative. The mixed blessing of a Catholic upbringing is treated with nuance. Teen love is spiky and disappointing, and yet utterly intoxicating. We understand why Lady Bird wants to hang out at “The Deuce”—a nondescript parking lot—with Sacramento’s most beautiful and apathetic rich kids, but boy, are we glad when she realises they’re not her real friends.
And I cheer not just for Lady Bird the character, but for Ronan and for Gerwig as well. This movie is a true female “power movie”. Saoirse’s performance is a tour-de-force, and the perfect post-breakout role; Greta’s writing and direction is a triumph (and no Baumbach in sight!). Some decisions were made during the making of this film that can only be described as exquisite. Gerwig elevates this teen tale to something stunningly cinematic, refusing to rest on her laurels of precise, witty script-work and characterisation by interspersing the film with sequences in which the impact derives entirely from image, gesture, and movement. She even manages to make montages look fresh.
Using a Jon Brion score (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind; Punch Drunk Love) was another stunning choice in terms of elevating the narrative. Look out for a climactic scene between Lady Bird and her mother—their relationship is fraught throughout, and could be the entire focus of another film, rather than, as it is here, just another part of an elegant tapestry—where their arguing (“I’m sorry! I’m sorry for wanting more!”) fades to a muffled silence, and Brion’s syncopated discords take over. It’s a perfect, heart-wrenching moment that the film doesn’t dwell on—because it doesn’t need to.
Regarding Lady Bird, words are inadequate. It is a reinvention of how we usually choose to describe films like this: relatable, sentimental, nostalgic, quirky. Instead, I want to tell you that my heart soared; that I cried at unexpected moments. I want to tell you that the way Lady Bird feels about Sacramento is exactly the way I feel about my where I grew up; about how the smell of a Catholic church and the sound of its choir can somehow feel like an atheist’s home; that “home” is the most complex and most potent of human ideas. In Lady Bird, Sacramento becomes Paris—bathed in faithful, romantic light—Lady Bird, in a nod towards self-acceptance, becomes Christine, and we all become better for watching it.