by Philip Price
There is a line in “Lady Bird” that goes, “different things can be sad. It’s not all war!” Which not only served to make me feel more validated in times of my own sadness despite knowing there are countless others who have much more to complain about than myself, but this line of dialogue also kind of reassured me that all kinds of films could be great-not just the serious dramas that carry a weight of self-importance. Maybe “Lady Bird” does this somewhat intentionally as it knows its target audience will be the twenty to thirtysomethings that grew up in the early aughts as depicted in the film, largely compiled of the more artistic and individualistic states of mind that flock to such indie fare, who will inevitably contemplate if a coming-of-age comedy, such as “Lady Bird,” can be as great a film as anything else they've seen this year despite not necessarily being about something as earth-shatteringly important as other movies undoubtedly will be. Maybe writer and first-time director Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”) understood who her audience would be and wanted to reassure them of the safe intellectual zone where it would be okay to praise her debut to levels of near perfection it ultimately wouldn't be able to match triggering the inevitable backlash that she would blindly blow past due to her effortless charm. Maybe Gerwig recognized all of this amid writing the film and decided to consciously insert this line of reassurance reminding all of us that it's okay to love her movie as much as you admire whatever Steven Spielberg or Paul Thomas Anderson are putting out this awards season, or maybe she was simply re-living a feeling from her youth when someone made her feel small about something she felt was big. Either way, the fact of the matter is that “Lady Bird,” while admittedly specific to a certain demographic of the population (I'm all for diversity, but that doesn't mean we have to denounce films where there isn't as much we think there could be), is not just a straightforward coming-of-age movie, but one that is more about the navigation of that period in life that does the seemingly impossible task of collecting all these moments and disparate elements that no doubt each felt like defining moments in Gerwig's own adolescence and brings them together in a film that allows each to permeate throughout the entirety of the movie while at the same time shaping a thorough, comprehensive picture of our titular character.
In what might be one of the best opening scenes of the year we are introduced to senior in high school Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (the consistently great Saoirse Ronan) who is riding shotgun with her mom, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), as they're on their way home from a college tour and finishing up listening to "The Grapes of Wrath" on cassette. The discussion starts simple enough with Marion requesting Lady Bird resist her urge to immediately turn on the radio, but instead allow the two of them time to really soak in the wealth of what they've just spent countless hours absorbing. This sparks a weightless debate between the two of them which quickly escalates into a squabble that doesn't even have anything to do with the original disagreement that spawned the argument. Things continue to rise, the words becoming more and more heated until Lady Bird decides to do the only thing she can do to escape her present confines. A smash cut to Lady Bird in the middle of mass wearing a pink cast that is marked with a certain obscenity aimed at a certain maternal figure caps off this scene that immediately tells us what we're in store for. It's downright fantastic, totally human, and just really, funny. It's 2002 and Lady Bird is ready to leave behind her hometown of Sacramento for somewhere with "more culture" as her parents, including recently unemployed father Larry (Tracy Letts), have restricted her to Catholic school for what is said to be her own well-being after her brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), saw someone get stabbed outside the public school. The point being, the McPherson's are decidedly middle class and Lady Bird has her sights set on more in life. Marion works double shifts at the hospital to make ends meet, Miguel and his live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) are college graduates who are biding their time bagging groceries, and Larry inherently feels like the kind of father who would do or give up anything for his children-which includes whatever dreams he might have had prior to those kids entering the picture. As someone whose ambitions always seem to outweigh my actual talent I wholly identified with Lady Bird's hopes of attending an East coast college like Yale, but not Yale because she would never have the credentials (or the last name, or wealth) to get in, but somewhere akin to it. Marion isn't keen on her only daughter and youngest child moving so far away while Larry, who has seemingly always played the good guy in the parenting roles, has a great conviction to help his daughter make her goals a reality. At school, Lady Bird has a best friend in Julie (the wonderful Beanie Feldstein) who together brave their final year of high school and the many challenges that come along with that including the inevitability of boys and the unpredictability of drama club.
What makes “Lady Bird” so appealing and so achingly real though, is what makes all Gerwig and her partner, Noah Baumbach's, works so cutting and honest, but equally as beautiful which is the naturalistic quality of the writing. Of course, great performers who can convey these meanderings in meaningful ways certainly helps, but Gerwig has spoken openly about how much she dislikes the thought of improvisation and how much she appreciates sticking to the words she has worked so hard to put to the page. This doesn't necessarily indicate a desire for dialogue that is flashy or flowery, but more Gerwig desires to stick to the script due to the fact she clearly puts in the effort to make her writing not sound like writing at all. Gerwig instead uses the improvisational impulse of the given scenario and then sets it up to give it the quality of feeling spur of the moment when in fact the actors follow the script down to the punctuation. This is a task, for sure, but this is where so many of Gerwig and Baumbach's collaborations have succeeded in the past and “Lady Bird” is thankfully no different. While overall, I really liked the movie and much of what it had to say, how it said it, and how searingly funny it is, what I genuinely loved about it was the fact it never allows you, the audience member, to pin it down as one single thing. Sure, it would be easy to label the film as a coming-of-age tale that exists in the realm of a high school comedy, but this structure and the familiar beats of that genre are only present to form an opening to what's on Gerwig's mind. From the moment Lady Bird jumps out of the moving vehicle in that opening sequence it's obvious Gerwig is intent on upending each of the familiar tropes she touches upon in her movie. The difference is that Gerwig, in her writing, has included details-specific details-that by default make the story ring true to a broad audience who has experienced some form of that specificity in their own lives. And so, yeah, you bet your ass there is a scene that takes place in an airport at the climax of the film that involves a mad dash between two family members, but Gerwig is intelligent enough to know that while structure and plot devices are necessary if one is sly and/or subtle enough they can bury the tropes and structure under the originality of the story-if the story and the characters are strong enough. We may recognize these moments from movies that have come before, but “Lady Bird” manipulates them to appeal to the familiar while adding an unexpected layer to the sequence. In terms of this airport sequence it is both very movie-like and it isn't. This sequence doesn't represent relief or a reunion, but rather it reinforces the level of regret so many of us live within our daily lives while contrasting this with what it so liberating about our titular character in the she chooses to live without such a thing.
This structure and the familiar beats of the genre it fits snuggly into are only present to form an opening into what's on Gerwig's mind. So, what is it that's on Gerwig's mind you might ask? That would be this idea of one person's coming of age being another person's letting go. In “Lady Bird” specifically, this is about the mother/daughter relationship between Ronan and Metcalf's characters who play off on another wonderfully as the story shows us time and time again how those emotions of resentment, of strong hatred, and annoyance are ones only Lady Bird can feel about her mother. If anyone outside of her father even looks as if they're considering saying something slightly offensive about her mom-she pops up and is the first to defend her. This is what the film is at its core: a love story between mother and daughter and how they fight, and they love equally as hard. There is a scene between Ronan and Metcalf in the film that encapsulates this relationship perfectly while demonstrating how good both performers are as well. The pair go to a thrift store to try and find a dress for Lady Bird to wear to Thanksgiving with her new boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges), as she'll be meeting his family for the first time. Speaking of Hedges, he gets a scene that will absolutely destroy you if any semblance of a heart exists within your chest. While shopping for dresses though, Lady Bird sees that her mother can be nice to others, but not to her. Lady Bird feels that typical constant nagging as is done by mother's, while constantly nagging at her about such things as dragging her feet and then in the moment she finds her dress they are best friends again. It is through this relationship and through these key lead performances that Gerwig executes her sentiment of coming around to appreciate home or what you've known as home, but never appreciating it until you're on the cusp of leaving. This is one of those broad generalities that hooks the audience, while the deliberate details of chronicling Lady Bird and her mother's favorite Sunday pastime of touring open houses far outside their price range, that of watching a junior varsity football coach try to apply his skills to drama club, or the fantastic details courtesy of 2002 that include the likes of t-shirts that say, "Save a Horse, Ride A Cowboy," and the consistent use of Dave Matthews Band, "Crash Into Me," that make the film overwhelmingly specific to a particular experience and thus all the more connecting with each individual viewer. Beyond Ronan and Metcalf, whose performances truly are fantastic, you will automatically fall in love with Feldstein's Julie, you'll want to hug Letts' Larry, while wanting to punch Timothée Chalamet's alt-rock, anti-establishment Kyle. The Catholic school Lady Bird attends is also something of a major player in the way Gerwig seems to view how much it influenced her own youth (“Lady Bird” is most definitely at least semi-autobiographical), but Gerwig nor her film ever look down on the church or demean it in the snarky way one might expect (there is a great practical joke played on a nun though, and an even better payoff to that joke later), but rather Lady Bird more comes to embrace the time she's spent there and the friends she's made while appreciating the silent understanding that seems to exist between she and the staff that includes Sister Sarah (Joan Smith) and Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson). In so many ways, “Lady Bird” flies past so many other coming-of-age tales, but it is the film's consistent ability to hit raw nerves in such honest fashions that really allow it to soar.