Lady Bird (2017/18)
Director: Greta Gerwig
Screenwriter: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith
Saoirse Ronan stars as a fictional version of her director Greta Gerwig, Christine McPherson – she would prefer if you called her Lady Bird – who’s navigating the final year at her catholic high school in Sacramento, California. She frequently argues with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) whose adult concerns about money, work and helping her depressed husband Larry (Tracey Letts) are at the forefront of her mind. Lady Bird, however, is more concerned with daydreaming about going to college, ways to improve her social standing and the oh-so-important opposite sex. Although this is technically Greta Gerwig’s debut feature film, that title is a little disingenuous; she co-directed Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg, has a number of writing credits and has starred in the likes of Greenberg, Frances Ha and Jackie. It’s this experience that makes Lady Bird a drama which is both assured and authentic, unveiling a talented director whose ability to draw on her own experiences guides the cast to deliver performances born of empathy and affection.
These performances are the heart and soul of the film with the cast and all of it’s supporting characters handing in such emotional performances it’s apparent they feel an affinity for Gerwig’s writing and the honest portrayal of those torturous teenage years. Gerwig has stated that she likes her cast to meet well before filming and stay in contact with each other; the chemistry shows, and any time Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are on screen there’s an overbearing sense of volatility. They are simultaneously best friends and worst enemies and all it takes is one wrong word between them for that needle to shift. Tracey Letts’ Larry is similarly burdened with the same stresses as his wife but relates these to Lady Bird much less often. He seems content with letting her be a teenager and not saddling her with problems, even if she does possess ways to make the situation better. In one heartbreaking scene Lady Bird is taken to task by her mother for asking her dad to drop her off a few blocks away from school, an act which has seemingly contributed to his depression and the idea that people are ashamed of him. Lady Bird is shocked to find out this has impacted her dad in such a way, and in typical teenage fashion is oblivious to the damage her actions can have against the people that she loves.
While it’s easy to get transfixed on Saoirse Ronan’s powerhouse performance or the understated anxiety of Laurie Metcalf, Gerwig has also nailed the writing of all of the supporting characters. Lucas Hedges is perfect as Danny, Lady Bird’s first love, a role the actor plays with such innocence until later in the movie when it switches to something much more complex. Timothée Chalamet plays another love interest of Lady Bird’s, this time with more of an enigmatic vacuousness that makes you want to scream at the screen because you just know he’s a heartbreaker. Beanie Feldstein as Julie may be one of the more under-appreciated roles from this year in film, providing the movie with such tenderness and complexity underlined with amazing comedic timing. If there is anything this film does wrong, it’s that it doesn’t give us enough time to explore the character of Julie and how she’s intrinsically linked to much of the growing up that Lady Bird has to do. She’s better at math, is liked by her teachers and gets better parts in the school play all while having family problems of her own. Lady Bird is in many ways the antithesis of this and, again, is oblivious to the ways in which Julie is in many ways the perfect best friend – supportive and non-judgemental.
Lady Bird has been described as autobiographical but apart from sharing the same home town and the years spent as a teen (early 00’s) not much of Greta Gerwig’s real life is shared with Christine McPherson. Gerwig has said that she and her mother did not have the same roaring arguments and that she was a very straight teen in comparison to her titular character. Regardless, whether the events in the film really happened or not, we are seeing the thoughts of a teenage girl transported into literal behaviours. Gerwig is less focused on showing us the standard tropes of drama (i.e. event happens, how do characters react, how is the situation resolved) and is more focused on the characters’ feelings and how they deal with the seemingly unending hurdles of life. In some instances we aren’t privy to some of the dramatic events that unfold, in others we only see the aftermath, but what stays constant is how the character’s respond to each other. A scene in which Lady Bird visits Julie only to find her crying on the couch is a perfect example. Why Julie is crying isn’t explained, nor are the events leading up to this moment shown from Julie’s perspective. What the audience are shown is Lady Bird’s attempts to cheer up her best friend. and everything else starts to seem unimportant; the relationships these characters build is the true warmth of the picture.
Jon Brion manages to somehow illustrate to us this range of human emotion through his score, which is both melancholic and uplifting, often switching between some sort of John Hughes/Talking Heads inspired new wave and thoughtful instrumental work. Brion isn’t a stranger to dealing with complex human emotion have been responsible for the music in the deep psyche studies of Punch Drunk-Love and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The title and credit music are perfect examples of the contrast between what the music is attempting to underpin. Quite often these moments of giddy 80s guitar work switch to a motif which prevails throughout the movie, a descending piano scale which provokes this sense of tumbling or falling down, a metaphor for high school taken to its most basic. This feeling of spiralling out of control is counteracted with another reappearing motif, a reverse ascending piano scale (which Gerwig calls the ‘falling up’ part) to match the way in which life ebbs and flows. The teenage mind is cataclysmic; it can feel both optimistic and pessimistic, hope and despair all at the same time and the score contrasts it beautifully. Luckily the music of the period is kept to a minimum – early 00s was not exactly a classic era – Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” is the soundtrack to a house party, “Ironic” by Alanis Morissette is played on the journey to school and “Crash Into Me” by the Dave Matthews Band helps Lady Bird through a particularly brutal break up.
Greta Gerwig’s writing and experience as an actor are what truly astound and give life to these characters, people who may not treat each other perfectly but are true and loving and spiteful and cold and all of the other contradictions that make up the range of the human experience. It’s OK to not be OK, it’s OK to date the wrong people, it’s OK to be ashamed of where you come from, but you have to be able to deal with the consequences and guilt of your actions, something which Lady Bird struggles with constantly. There’s also this feeling that if you’re ashamed or unhappy with the place you come from then you’re ashamed or unhappy with the people that come from that place. It’s this constant misinterpretation of feelings between parent and child which make Lady Bird one of the most brutally honest portrayals ever seen on film.
Lady Bird is both honest and melodramatic, its sensibilities entangled with the teen years of its protagonist, the themes are seemingly unimportant and trivial (or so we will tell ourselves) and yet they are universally recognisable. Gerwig’s work behind the camera, tied with that of Ronan’s and Metcalf’s in front of it, has birthed an all-time great coming of age movie. It’s absolutely deserving of its awards season appreciation, is one of the best films of the year and is perhaps even more unique for its deceptively ordinary portrayal of growing up. Lady Bird, both film and character, are anything but ordinary.