"Lady Bird" is one of the best films of the year, and an incredible directorial debut
Nothing evokes emotions quite like a coming-of-age film because everyone at least claims to have been 17 once (I have my suspicions about a handful of you). While “Lady Bird” might feature a super-totally-not-at-all semi-autobiographical Greta Gerwig as its subject (played by Saoirse Ronan, mind you), it strikes a chord because it invokes those emotions so damn well. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is, somehow, breathtakingly authentic.
So okay, she’s a bit of a snob, and doesn’t want to live in Sacramento or go to UC Davis. Who can’t relate to wanting to move away from the place they grew up in? Clearly the kid is a little out of touch (she thinks Connecticut is a cultural hot spot for god’s sakes) and needs some space from her mother, played incredibly by Laurie Metcalf.
Ronan owns the role (it’s no wonder Gerwig waited for her to be available), but it’s the screenplay and directing that fits everything into place. Gerwig never apologizes for Ronan, nor does she expect a 17 year old in the middle of the most stressful year of her life to have all the answers (even when she thinks she does). It just feels right.
That’s the mark of great directing, something remarkable given this is Gerwig’s first time behind the camera (she co-directed "Nights and Weekends" with Joe Swanberg). Expertly bringing story to screen, blending tone, performances and all that comes with it into a cohesive mix is a uniquely difficult task made no easier because this is Gerwig’s story. If anything, it’s more difficult because this is her story; and in spite of that, she knocks it out of the park.
What makes “Lady Bird” so special is that the story doesn’t just belong to Ronan. The careful steps taken to make the film as much about Metcalf as Ronan are a masterclass in balance. There are no pantomime villains in Gerwig’s screenplay: there are only friends and family members trying to understand each other, and ultimately, themselves.
Perhaps that’s why “Lady Bird” resonates with so many people; because that’s the way life works. When Ronan earnestly asks Metcalf if she likes her while trying on a prom dress in a Sacramento thrift store, she isn’t playing a complicated mind game. She’s a young woman asking her mom if she likes the person her daughter is becoming.
The vulnerability shown in that scene underscores what makes Ronan a great performer and Lady Bird a terrific character. Yes, she’s funny, ostentatious and sings “Everybody Says Don’t” by Barbara Streisand as an audition song for a high school musical (an amazing move that should have gotten her the lead role), but it’s the emotional availability of her character that makes her great.
As a member of a lower-middle class family attending a private high school, much of her anxiety centers on class. That opens Ronan up while playing opposite not-poor-at-all counterparts Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet, but also opens a window into where she inherits those anxieties from (hi mom and dad).
Gerwig leaves little doubt as to her opinion on whether we grow up to become our parents, though if its any consolation, she seems to be optimistic about the proposition. That her directing on this film has been damned with faint praise is particularly puzzling given the beautiful editing used to tie up her leads’ stories. Not all best directing nods need to come with an IMAX screening or a recast during reshoots.
Perhaps the sure handedness of “Lady Bird” shouldn’t be a surprise despite it coming from a first-time director. With Gerwig’s credentials firmly established long before we first met Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, perhaps we should be upset it took so long for someone to hand her a check and a chair.