"Lady Bird" captures the teenage experience perfectly
Authenticity is a tough nut to crack in the movie business. Where “Juno” became a cult classic (it’s been a decade, you’re old, and you’re going to die) because everyone talks the way you wish you could talk (get over it), “Lady Bird” hits a very different tone. Greta Gerwig, in her solo directorial debut no less, crafts a high school experience so real that it hurts – often literally.
Set in 2002 Sacramento, fresh off the Kings’ heartbreaking defeat at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, the titular protagonist wants nothing to do with the city she grew up in. If you’ve spent time in Sacramento, it’s painfully obvious Gerwig grew up in Cow Town. From the painstaking way she shot it, to the hideous homecoming attire, to … well, it’s everything.
“Lady Bird” captures so many areas of being a teenager so beautifully it’s hard to focus on just one. Lady Bird’s tense relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is the heartbeat of the film. It’s no coincidence Gerwig chooses to open the proceedings with a scene between Lady Bird and her mother returning from a college visit. The conversation, which so quickly oscillates between cordial and hostile, perfectly encapsulates their relationship.
It also underscores Lady Bird’s relationship with Sacramento, or to any place or person we’re connected to by anything other than choice. Lady Bird writes her college essay about Sacramento, and the head nun (Lois Smith) refers to this as a form of love. When Lady Bird recoils, she responds by saying she “notices things;” Smith responds, “don’t you think that is a form of love?”
That every character in “Lady Bird” feels like a real human being speaks to the writing done by Gerwig, but also to the performances of capable actors. Of course, this movie belongs to Saoirse Ronan. The Academy Award-nominated actress should get another dress picked out, as she’s in fine form a year removed from her stunning performance in “Brooklyn.”
Much of “Lady Bird” works because of Ronan. She gives the film’s most important character her heart and soul. We already knew her talent, but seeing Ronan fully embody the intense, fiery and vulnerable Lady Bird displays the full range of the actress’ capabilities. Simply put, it’s easy to see what Gerwig put production on hold to wait for Ronan to become available for the starring role. Ronan was worth the wait.
Growing up isn’t easy, no matter where you are, who your parents are or what you want to do when you pick up your high school diploma. Gerwig manages to weave together dozens of threads of the coming-of-age experience into a cohesive story without cheapening any of them; that’s a feat a lesser storyteller couldn’t. Perhaps it goes to show that experience in a director’s chair is only worth so much; clearly Gerwig knew what she was doing long before she began this project.
There’s a scene in “Lady Bird” where her mother demands her gratitude. If only Lady Bird realized how much it cost to raise her. Ronan snaps back, “give me a number.” That’s the line the film walks: Right on the edge of living out our fantasies, and authenticity. That makes it one of the most powerful coming of age stories ever put on film, and puts it among the best movies of the year.
You’ll love Lady Bird because she’s what you wanted to be as a teenager. You’ll love the film because it’ll remind you so much of what life was like when you were one.