2017 | rated R | starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucus Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Tracy Letts | directed by Greta Gerwig | 1hr 34mins |
Studio Pitch: The directorial debut, and a semi-autobiographical story, of Greta Gerwig
This movie had me at Greta Gerwig. A proven well-spring of talent and wit after co-writing and staring in Frances Ha and Mistress America, Gerwig goes exclusively behind the camera for Lady Bird. It’s a clever, Earthy film that works right alongside those familiar with Gerwig and Noah Baumbach’s work. It presumptively centers around a mother-daughter relationship story but spirals out of that into a fully realized character drama where every little character in Lady Bird’s orbit gets either a satisfying arc or a respectful moment before it’s all over.
I’d be hard pressed to pull numbers on how unique a strained mother-daughter story the likes this movie tells is. Parent-child stories are surprisingly rare anyway, often assumed to be or actually given over to artificial syrupy melodrama. Mother-daughter stories seem more common on TV (This is Us, Better Things, How to Get Away With Murder) but movies seem to lean toward the strained father-son dynamic where the father won’t or can’t show emotions to a son who desperately wants his approval (heck, it’s the B-story in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), but stories of mothers and daughters – while not unheard of are rarer. The prototype being Terms of Endearment extending to Pixar’s Brave. Gerwig doesn’t go for the easy melodrama either, instead infusing it with palpable immediacy and painful honesty. There are things in this movie I won’t be able to relate to, which is exactly the point. Lady Bird is incredibly specific in it’s subject and time period, yet universal in it’s themes.
High school student Lady Bird (a nickname she gave to herself that has more to do with being half bird than it does Lyndon Johnson’s wife) is played by Saoirse Ronan like a combination of Gerwig’s own Mistress America character as a child and Max Fischer from Rushmore. She’s witty, flawed, often selfish, and her ambition wildly exceeds actual talent. Gerwig’s story follows Lady Bird in her final year of high school, negotiating cliques and boys with her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) while trying to get a scholarship to a mystical and sexy New York university and away from the cultural wasteland of Sacramento California. A goal that puts her at odds with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) already juggling a financially strapped house. Gerwig wraps the film in effectively potent teen angst and class envy. Lady Bird is very concerned about the zip code they live in and how she looks to the rich kids. The movie treats post-9/11 2002 like a period piece.
Lady Bird is an actor’s film, less concerned with where the story goes then how it’s characters rationalize the journey there. Gerwig largely steps out of the way, encouraging small subtle performances instead of cinematic tricks. The film is uniformly well acted by all. Ronan is always good, carrying the film all the way here. Metcalf is terrific, playing the weighty parent role usually given to the father/son relationship, a mother who doesn’t know how to communicate with her daughter in any way that doesn’t put her down and now has to deal with that daughter trying to literally escape. The warm heart of the marriage is given to a Tracy Letts (Divorce) who perfectly plays the soft dad in the father/daughter dynamic.
Lady Bird isn’t a revolutionary film by any stretch and it’s a tad too on-the-nose (it’s a call-your-mom movie where a character literally calls their mom), but it creates a fully realized world for itself around Lady Bird, paying those character arcs off in satisfying ways and getting all the mechanics just right in quiet ways. It’s a strong, confident and wonderful debut film for Gerwig.