Arts movie review

Lady Bird: A funny, bittersweet tale of female adolescence

In which Greta Gerwig presents a familiar look into the life of senior year

Lady Bird
Written and directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf
Rated R, Now Playing

In the opening scene of Lady Bird, high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), and her mother, Marion, (Laurie Metcalf) weep together at the final lines of an audio recording of The Grapes of Wrath on the road back from a college visit. Moments later, they are bickering about Lady Bird’s college prospects (or lack thereof) and general sense of gratitude (or lack thereof). The argument ends abruptly when the daughter, with a teenager’s flair for the dramatic, jumps out of the moving car and onto the a highway in frustration.

Throughout the movie, Lady Bird and her mother’s conversations slip to and from endearing moments of mother-daughter synchronicity to irate bickering in a way that is both hilarious and entirely familiar. Marion harbors an insecurity that she cannot provide enough for her daughter, especially financially. We see all of Lady Bird’s adolescent frustrations with the details of her life — the boringness of Sacramento and a private Catholic high school, the improbability of going to college on the East Coast — as simple dissatisfaction, rather than what it is: the natural agitation of a young person chafing at the bounds of possibility as she struggles to define herself and take control of her destiny.

As filmmaker Greta Gerwig’s debut as sole writer and director, Lady Bird chronicles the tumultuous senior year of the free spirited, self-named Lady Bird (asked by a teacher if this is her given name, she explains, “It was given to me, by me.”)

It is clear that Gerwig loves each of her characters, and each one is vibrant and full of life. Though she relentlessly mocks her subjects’ many contradictions, Gerwig’s humor is never scornful. It’s funny because it’s insightful; she pays attention to the inner lives of her subjects. Even the shallow cool kids are not unilaterally mean; like our heroine, they are clumsily grappling with their own notions of self-identity. They try to appear enlightened and self-assured when, in reality, they are anything but.

There is nothing particularly unique about Lady Bird’s experiences — first romances, the dramas of high school friendships, a tumultuous home life exacerbated by financial hardship, etc. In fact, the plot is often cliché, as when Lady Bird ditches her loyal best friend since childhood (Beanie Feldstein) for a vain but popular crowd and a bad-boy boyfriend. Though the subject matter, objectively speaking, might be small, the film feels tremendous. Gerwig’s witty script, realistic characters, and vivid sense of setting, combined with a superb cast, give the film an energy that is all its own. Saoirse Ronan shines as the headstrong Lady Bird as she flits from identity to identity, with her dyed red hair and a refreshingly honest face of acne. Beanie Feldstein proves herself just as talented as her brother, Jonah Hill, as Lady Bird’s goofy, loyal friend, Julie. But it’s Gerwig’s script, creativity, and vivid sense of setting that makes Lady Bird soar.

Lady Bird feels every slight, every betrayal, every perceived flirtation with adolescent intensity — her jubilation at first kiss, her devastation when her perfect boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) turns out to be gay, and her all-consuming desire to go to an East Coast college. It’s clear that she is watching her life unfold like a movie, but not the movie that we’re watching. She craves romance, excitement, “to live through something.”

Her aspirations are huge but still nebulous. She is determined to realize herself but is not entirely sure what that means. She thinks she has an idea of what it does not mean: it does not mean her home city of Sacramento, which she never misses an opportunity to disparage as vapid and uncultured. It does not mean Christine, the name her parents gave her, which feels wrapped up in their expectations. And it does not mean a Catholic college, with all the rules and rituals of her stifling Catholic high school.

The irony is that it is not until the film’s final sequences, when Lady Bird breaks free, that she realizes how much she loves these things and how much they are a part of her. However, these parts of her identity were sometimes apparent to others. In a meeting with a school nun about to her college essay, the sister remarks, “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” a comment that comes as a surprise both to the viewer and to Lady Bird herself. “I guess I just pay attention,” says Lady Bird. “Don’t you think,” asks the sister, “that they’re the same thing?” It is a lovely insight into the nature of love and the meaning of home. It characterizes Lady Bird/Christine’s affection for the world she comes from and her loving but difficult relationship with her mother, but also Gerwig’s loving attention the details of characters and setting. It is what makes Lady Bird so wonderful.