Director: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts
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“Is that your given name?” Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley Henderson) asks Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan). “Yes, I gave it to myself,” comes the defiant reply. “It’s given to me by me.”
Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-ager, which takes its title from its heroine’s self-appointed moniker, is a heartfelt, hilarious and honest gem, one that flawlessly captures the boisterous confidence of youth as it teeters on the brink of adulthood, and its naive inability to see the steep chasm of life below the edge. Lady Bird is the epitome of that impossible paradox, one that miraculously exists for a brief spell during one’s teen years, perpetually perched between independence and dependency – the very act of Lady Bird giving herself a name is both a hopeful statement of self-empowerment and a hostile rejection of the label (“Christine”) her mother (Laurie Metcalf) bestowed upon her. Without her mother, and without that birth name, though, Lady Bird would not be able to fly the nest in such a determined, fiery way; she’s rebelling, but can only do so because she has something to rebel against.
Gerwig understands all this and more in her solo directorial debut, but it’s an intuition that comes as no surprise. After co-directing Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg in 2008, she has since gone on to co-write scripts with Noah Baumbach for both Frances Ha and Mistress America. Two knowing portraits of a 20-something and a 30-something going through their own life crises (whether they know it or not), Lady Bird feels like the final part of a trilogy for this wonderfully earnest storyteller, completing a cycle of growing pains captured in all their sincere aches and earnest laughs.
The idealistic energy of Frances Ha and the arch Millennial wit of Mistress America (both titles that also stemmed from their protagonists) defined their stories, shaping them to fit their personalities. Lady Bird has that same sympathetic approach to structure, moving events forward at a restless pace before we have a chance to dwell on, and appreciate, the tiny moments of family and friends that fly by unappreciated. But Gerwig’s knack for empathising with everyone’s complexities gives us a portrait not only of Lady Bird, but also of Sacramento in the early 2000s, where she’s growing up.
It’s a world of supporting characters that are rounded just enough to make them real on paper – and played note-perfect by a cast ready to sink their teeth into the smallest touches. Stephen McKinley Henderson’s priest at Lady Bird’s Catholic school is heartbreakingly tragic, as he bursts into tears at will, even though we never find out the reason why. Beanie Feldstein is winningly brilliant as Lady Bird’s best friend, Julie, who has a crush on her encouraging teacher but is inevitably taken for granted by our self-centered lead. Lucas Hedges is endearing as buttoned-up drama lover Danny, who becomes Lady Bird’s not very convincing boyfriend (he “respects her too much” to do anything physical). Timothée Chalamet, meanwhile, is on scene-stealing form as the would-be bad boy of Lady Bird’s love life, who smokes preeningly, lectures snobbishly about mobile phones becoming government tracking devices and warns (correctly) that the young woman will grow up to have a lot of underwhelming sex in her life.
“It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” the sweet, elderly Sister Sarah (Lois Smith) says, when speaking to Lady Bird about an essay she wrote describing her frustratingly small and uncultured hometown. “I guess I pay attention,” she comments politely. “Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” comes the reply.
It cuts right to the heart of the movie’s disarming charm, which stems from that unerring attention. There’s a specificity about everything and everyone we see, shot by Gerwig with an uncluttered simplicity that allows the script and cast to shine. It’s most evident in Lady Bird’s family, from her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodriguez) and girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott), who style themselves as outsiders but never seem sure what they’re outside of, to her dad (Tracy Letts), a redundant computer programmer.
Her bond with her father is affectionately done, as he subtly emerges as the essential go-between mediating the clashing personalities of Lady Bird and Marion, her mum. Letts finds profound compassion beneath his depressed, resigned presence, but Laurie Metcalf and Ronan are the star attraction, and it’s their relationship that becomes the beating heart of the story. Marion, a nurse struggling to make ends meet, is a martyr – and wants everyone to know it. Lady Bird has inherited that same stubborn streak, which means that they disagree constantly, and always refuse to back down. “I want you to be the very best version of yourself,” says her mum, with a typically disappointed tone. “But what if this is the best version?” Lady Bird asks, her sarcastic wit barely disguising her childlike vulnerability.
It’s a wonderfully observed dynamic that nails the boundary between liking someone and loving someone – and that sometimes, the two can be mutually exclusive. The result is a relationship that changes from fierce row to shared joy in a heartbeat – and often changes back again mere seconds later.
Both Metcalf’s and Roman’s performances are sublime, but Gerwig’s masterstroke is ensuring that we don’t just spend all our time under Lady Bird’s wing: we relish Christine’s optimism, her enthusiastic rebellious streak, her artistic ambitions, her impatience to find out who she is; but we also, by understanding the perspectives of her mother, father, brother and best friend, see that she’s hypocritical, ungrateful and selfish. There’s wisdom in the script’s hindsight, which portrays Lady Bird not only as a likeable young woman, but also as what she can eventually grow up to be, no matter where her name comes from. The result is a wry, sharp comedy that’s bulging with quotable one-liners, and a drama so lacking in cynicism that it finds fresh emotion in the coming-of-age genre. There’s a profound universality in its extremely specific details. Or, to use the film’s own beautiful logic, Lady Bird is a movie with an abundance of attention. You’ll absolutely love it.