Ahhhh, finally! This here’s that pesky film that we in the UK have been hearing about for many months, reading about just how great it is and how at one point, before it was usurped by Paddington 2, it was the best reviewed film on Rotten Tomatoes. Before one spoilsport critic came along and ruined its perfect run. But now it’s finally here (though at the time of writing, it’s still only available in a few select cinemas – seriously, what gives?!) so I didn’t waste any time in going down to Cardiff to finally see what all the fuss was about.
Writer/director Greta Gerwig’s 2002-set film stars Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a spirited high school senior who yearns to escape Sacramento and to move to an arts college on the east coast, much to the disapproval of her passive-aggressive mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). As she struggles to maintain her grades and gain financial aid for college, she goes through the usual trials and tribulations of maturing into adulthood as she starts relationships with two very different boys (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet) and inadvertently distances herself from her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein).
The main reason why Lady Bird works so well, I think, is its excellent screenplay, penned by director Greta Gerwig; very much like Frances Ha and Mistress America (both of which she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach), the dialogue is incredibly breezy, naturalistic, often genuinely funny, and it just seems to effortlessly flow from the screen. Because of this, it’s so easy to relax and to let yourself get lost in this onscreen world, feeling right at home alongside the many different characters. As I say, Lady Bird is very often quite funny (especially in the wonderful scenes at the school musical – I was really smiling at those parts) and it showcases Greta Gerwig’s own particular brand of humour, showing us just how she sees the “modern” world. It’s especially satisfying that Gerwig’s strong, confident and easygoing writing is getting further recognised and appreciated, being nominated for an original screenplay award at the upcoming Academy Awards – there’s very strong competition but if Lady Bird were to win one of those coveted trophies, an award for the screenplay is what it most deserves.
The film proves itself to be an ideal example of a coming of age story due to its clear, almost three-act, structure, telling the story of a teenager maturing into adulthood, following her as her life goes in different directions, and looking at a very particular mother/daughter relationship as well as emphasising the importance of your hometown. The plot is very realistic, authentic and inherently relatable – this is a journey we all go through – and as Lady Bird gets involved with two very different relationships, mixing with two very different groups of people, eventually shutting out friends and adopting something of a new attitude, we can see ourselves in the central character and easily relate to her tumultuous journey into adulthood.
Alongside the main mother/daughter relationship that plays a major part in the narrative, Lady Bird emphasises the importance of your hometown and your roots because although Lady Bird yearns to escape her “one horse town” and her forced Catholic schooling, she actually has a hidden affection for her home and the film shows this beautifully, lovingly showing how home (in this case, Sacramento) will always be an important part of one’s identity. The ending of the film particularly emphasises this by showing Lady Bird quite miserable and homesick in her new east coast life, but eventually finding comfort in a church – an institution she once sought to escape – and at this point in the film, it subtextually represents a happy, nostalgic time in her life, a time that she spent having fun with her friends dreaming of escape and so forth. This is a relatively minor part of the film but it’s a reminder that you don’t know what you have until you lose it and it struck a particular chord with me.
Lady Bird has a generous array of unique characters and as this is a solid coming of age piece, the people in this film aren’t caricatures but instead, they’re grounded, everyday people and through Gerwig’s great writing and the many fine performances, they’re all brought to life very well and we are able to get emotionally invested in their journeys.
At the head of the pack, Saoirse Ronan is amazing as our rebellious, strong-willed protagonist Christine/Lady Bird; at the best of times, she’s an outgoing, funny and slightly nuts everyday teenager who strives to move to a college on the east coast to be immersed in artistic culture, escaping from her forced Catholic education and “go nowhere” hometown, but at times, she’s also quite childish, moody and has some bad habits, often leaving rooms in a strop, getting on the wrong side of her mother. Lady Bird is a wonderful creation with clear goals, motivations and personality and Ronan brings her to life brilliantly, completely immersing herself in the character and having fun in the process; she’s a beautiful, luminous and soulful presence and it’s so great watching her on screen for the duration.
And yes, she is absolutely convincing as a teenager. More so than Margot Robbie was in I, Tonya that’s for sure!
Alongside, Laurie Metcalf plays a pivotal role as Lady Bird’s passive-aggressive mother Marion; she’s someone who clearly loves her daughter – as in real life, they have their good and bad days – but cannot get on board with certain life choices that she makes, leading to secrets being kept and their relationship eventually turning noticeably frosty. Laurie Metcalf gives a subtle but quietly powerful performance (a far cry from Mary Cooper!) and she works well with Saoirse Ronan.
Then we have Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet who play Lady Bird’s love interests: fun actor Danny, who has a certain secret, and Kyle, the mysterious and brooding, but also pretentious and cold, musician. The inherently likeable Hedges is yet again a pleasure to watch on screen (he’s certainly on a career high following Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards) and Chalamet does well with his important part, though he tends to get a bit mumbly and slur-y, just like in Hostiles! Lastly, Tracy Letts is good as Lady Bird’s kind father who finds himself unemployed, depressed and having to rejoin a workforce populated by immature youngsters, Stephen Henderson is great as the drama-teaching Father Leviatch, and Beanie Feldstein has great chemistry with Saoirse Ronan and is lovely to watch as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, providing plenty of laughs and smiles, especially when she innocently fawns over her dreamboat math teacher and when she and Lady Bird feast on a tub of communion wafers.
Lady Bird also has a unique score from Jon Brion; it’s hard to explain what it exactly does so right but the music in the film often sounds like nothing that I’ve really heard before, which makes the film that little bit different. Also, the era-specific tracks, with Justin Timberlake and the like, fit in quite nicely.
There aren’t too many negative things to say about Lady Bird but for me, I’d say that the central mother/daughter conflict is handled a little too lightly. In the film, we come to learn that Lady Bird and Marion don’t always see eye to eye and although they have some tender moments, there’s a growing animosity between them and Lady Bird often shows resentment and disapproval of her mother; the problem for me is that I didn’t see any real reason for Lady Bird’s hostility towards her mother, besides the usual teenage girl stuff, and on the other side, Marion’s passive-aggressive nature sometimes results in a lack of urgency, tension and drama within the film. It seems as though Lady Bird commits to following its own path, avoiding those character “screaming matches” that you may find in other, similar coming of age films but overall, the approach here is just a bit too soft and I didn’t fully buy into the characters’ fractured relationship. Also, a few characters (Danny and Kyle, in particular) could have been fleshed out a bit more.