As a film, Lady Bird is as uncontrollable but still captivating as its lead. I went in totally blind without reading any spoilers, and I’ll confess I was motivated by my curiosity as to why this debut independent film from writer/director Greta Gerwig has broken Toy Story 3’s record for the longest string of uninterrupted positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s important to keep in mind that RT is an aggregator, and its fresh-to-rotten score isn’t meant to be indicative of a film’s overall merit.
But I do get why critics are so enchanted by it. This is a very witty, funny and affectionate dramedy that also serves as a period piece into a not-so-distant past.
With the war in Iraq set to begin, Sacramento, CA in 2002 is a lovely city, but Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) doesn’t agree. Stuck in a Catholic school in and bored out of her mind, she’s hoping to be admitted to an East coast college, or at least something out-of-state.
While she gets on well with her father (Tracy Letts), the same can’t be said for her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and their relationship becomes even more strained when Lady Bird’s dad suddenly loses his job. Her daughter’s presentation and conduct become major sticking points for Marion, and her exploits involving her friends and guys don’t help her stress levels either.
When Lady Bird and her best friend Julie Steffans (Beanie Feldstein) aren’t annoying Marion’s adopted son Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) at his cashier job, they attend a theatre club in pursuit of a cute crooner name Danny (Lucas Hedges), who has a secret that Lady Bird wasn’t expecting. She always feels very believable in how she goes about trying to craft an identity, even when she starts leaning towards the brooding, Howard Zinn-reading rocker Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) and his popular clique.
Teens are never one thing, they’re wont to both follow the crowd and defy authority at the same time. Lady Bird fits this to a tee as she hurls herself out of a speeding car to escape her mother’s complaints (resulting in the pink cast she sports in the film’s first half), or how she has no issues having a heated debate with an anti-abortion activist during an assembly.
Early into Lady Bird, a lot of the quirky style of humor gave me shades of Napoleon Dynamite (for the record, I mean that as a compliment). This is a surprisingly genuine coming-of-age story in part because Gerwin has no issue in presenting her characters as dorks. A character’s intentions can be totally well-meaning, yet they don’t know how to properly convey what they want.
It didn’t take long for the more dramatic moments to subvert my expectations, thanks in part to the strength of Ronan and Metcalf’s performances. Marion is hyper-critical and nitpicky, but also a hard worker who unarguably cares about her daughter and family. In one scene, Marion is so disappointed in Lady Bird she can’t bring herself to speak with her, and Lady’s frustration in trying to get her to communicate hits a real emotional bullseye. (And yet it still transitions to a scene that could be considered comedic, or tragicomic at the very least in how desperate Lady Bird wants to fit in with her peers.)
Yet even at their most intense moments between each other and Marion’s inability to communicate her feelings to Lady Bird effectively, that sense of affection is never in doubt. The title heroine for her part is flawed, disobedient and her mouth often gets her into bad situations, but she still remains incredibly likable because of her honesty and legit sense of empathy.
Gerwig also gets some great work out of her supporting cast. Chalamet is understatedly hilarious as the rebel slacker Kyle, who is somehow simultaneously swoon-worthy and pathetic (“That was baller. So anarchist.”) Lucas Hedges’s Danny is incredibly sweet, and Odeya Rush is also enjoyable as the shallow cool girl Jenna (“I hate dishonesty.”). This film feels like I’ve stepped into an ongoing series in how fully developed its leads are.
Hype is a weird thing. After taking time to think about the film a bit over the past couple of days, I can’t call it the greatest teenage comedy-drama I’ve ever seen yet. But this is a movie that feels very ahead of its time in how well-crafted and believable its characters are. Lady Bird’s cast can be slotted into certain archetypes, but they feel more like real life people in how they interact.
At one point, one of Lady Bird’s instructors asks her “Aren’t they the same thing? Love, and attention”? That’s something you could easily apply to not just the nuances of the (incredibly smart) script, but also the subtle touches the cast brings to this film. Highly recommended.