Overview: Entering her senior year, a free-spirited young Sacramento girl wades through icky home and personal relationships while hoping to get into an East Coast college. A24; 2017; Rated R; 93 Minutes.
Call Me By My Name: Christine grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. Sorry, that’s Lady Bird who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. That’s what Christine wants to be called, so that’s what people call her, even her parents. She wants to cross those tracks, not just to the other, nicer side of Sacramento but faraway, to a place “with culture.” But first she needs to finish senior year.
We learn this early in Lady Bird, the first movie written and directed by the actress Greta Gerwig. It’ll be the first of many, hopefully. The film opens with Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) in the car with her mother, played delicately by Laurie Metcalf (the Oscars may call, and they wouldn’t be wrong). They’ve just finished The Grapes of Wrath book-on-tape during a long road trip, and seem to be getting along. Then they’re suddenly at each other’s throats about Sacramento, New York, and—really—each other. Lady Bird then opens the door and flings herself onto the asphalt, breaking her arm. This more or less describes their relationship.
Not This Again: From there, Gerwig zips us through Lady Bird’s next year at a progressive Catholic school with constant forward motion. It’s a typical senior year—tryouts, prom, short-lived relationships. You may think you know where this is headed, one of those coming-of-age high school stories that pit the main character between two love interests, where one pops up again at the end. Instead, it’s how Lady Bird deals with both breakups that’s crucial. The real relationship at the heart of this excellent film is between mother and daughter. Gerwig deftly manages the back and forth between Lady Bird’s social and family lives. While we spend a lot of time following Lady Bird’s schoolyard exploits, there’s always a conversation with her mother waiting around the corner. And like Lady Bird herself, we never quite know how that conversation is going to go.
We know from the very beginning that Lady Bird and her mother love and understand each other. But the people we know the best are often the ones we disagree and fight with the most. Throughout, we see Lady Bird and her mother oscillate between love and hate, sometimes in the span of a sentence. Lady Bird wants out of Sacramento, or as she calls it, “the Midwest of California.” It’s time for college, and like so many kids she sees this as an opportunity to get away and be her true, free self. Her mother, however, wastes no opportunity to show Lady Bird why her dreams may actually be out of reach.
The Personal is Universal: Is Lady Bird’s mother controlling? Probably. Stifling? Who’s to say. There’s reasons for her nature. The McPherson family isn’t destitute, but are credibly depicted as struggling. Lady Bird’s father (an endearing Tracy Letts) has recently been laid off. Her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) is married and has an advanced degree, but he works at a local dollar store, living at home. Things are obviously tight. But Gerwig makes sure not to dehumanize the family in any way, and they maintain their edge and sense of humor. Lady Bird herself seems to internally embrace her underdog position, even if she’s sometimes seems externally ashamed by it.
Lady Bird isn’t anything groundbreaking. Gerwig isn’t trying to re-invent the coming-of-age tale. She simply nails it. You always know you’re watching a movie, but Gerwig sucks us in because the film feels personal. The compositions are simple but effective, and across the board the acting is that special blend of realist and performative. Ronan fully embodies the character; I would say she has great chemistry with every other actor in the film, but it’s just more accurate to say she’s an incredible actor and would have chemistry with virtually anybody.
Lady Bird is compulsively watchable, but it’s not an empty crowd-pleaser, either. The way it depicts an honest, complicated relationship between mother and daughter sets it apart from many other coming-of-age or high school dramedies. Most interesting, perhaps, is how the film deals with self-identity. Lady Bird may choose her own name and feel slighted by where she lives, but she’s not the only one. All of the characters are worried in some sense about not just how things are, but how they look. That doesn’t make them bad or terribly vain. It makes them like us.
Overall: Great performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf lead the funny, incisive, and personal film from Greta Gerwig, who arrives with a debut that immediately marks her as one of the next standout American filmmakers.