I’ve always thought the best art comes from the universal. By tapping into thoughts, emotions, and experiences that everyone shares, it creates a sort of communal experience that transcends the themes, morals, and ideals and just hits home in the viewer’s heart. And sure, it may be a morally strong, thematically rich, idealistically perfect film in all respects, but nothing is quite as universal as the personal. That’s what makes Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird such a triumphantly warm experience: she has mined her life for events so personal, they speak to the universal truths that all of us know and love.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saorise Ronan) has but one goal in life: to escape the mundane suburbanism of Sacramento, California and move to the East Coast. She has no drive and no goals, but she is determined to make this dream a reality. Unfortunately, this plan may not be in the budget of her loving parents, the amiable-but-depressed Larry (Tracy Letts) and the strong-willed matriarch Marion (Laurie Metcalf), with whom Lady Bird shares a strong love-hate relationship. And so begins Lady Bird’s senior year in Catholic school, filled with several firsts, a few lasts, and a continuous arc as she desires to find herself as a person.
For those unfamiliar with Greta Gerwig’s career, Gerwig moved from her California home in the early aughts to get into the New York theater scene. After struggling for many years – and working in improv groups with future star Kate McKinnon – she became a darling as a founding member of the mumblecore scene – a film movement focused on hyper-realism in film, often eliminating the need for a script, or at times, even a plot. Her training in the movement made her a talented writer, and she ended up collaborating with a series of talented writer/directors, who often let her write the script with them to create her own character. This created a series of game-changing successes, including Mistress America, Maggie’s Game, Damsels in Distress, and the truly groundbreaking Frances Ha. Gerwig’s writing is distinct in her portrayal of what I call the Gerwig Heroine. Named after the Byronic Hero, the Gerwig Heroine is a woman caught in between childhood and adulthood who has these very distinct visions about her future that seem threatened by her present, and who tries to stay true to who she is despite the fact she is unsure of herself. They are quirky, witty, smart, naïve, lovable, and flawed, all rolled into one. What’s wonderful is that Gerwig is not only talented at playing these types of roles, and writing these types of roles; we now know she’s talented at directing these types of roles. She manages to squeeze an entire life story, filled with rich emotional details, and angst and love and complications, into one actress, and letting her run with it to her fullest abilities.
Gerwig’s directorial talents are prevalent from the film’s very first scene, which serves as the perfect analogy for the entire film. As we watch a five minute tour-de-force from actresses Ronan and Metcalf as they wake up after sharing a motel bed, share a cry over a Grapes of Wrath audiobook, and then immediately get into a screaming match, we watch a sequence that goes from touching to funny to sad to biting all the way back around to funny again. It’s a full gamut of emotions, and one that few directors could probably handle. It’s actually funny; despite being the perfect actress for directors like Woody Allen or Noah Baumbach, and exclusively starring in those types of self-reflective films, Lady Bird actually doesn’t feel like any of those directors. It feels more like Richard Linklater, a director who specializes in realistic dialogue and stories focused around material that ranges from hilarious to heartbreaking. The film is a true bildungsroman, and it really puts an effort into getting every little detail right, from first loves to first heartbreaks to first fights with friends. It’s amazing how many scenes feel true to the high school experience, from the post-theater shakes at the local hangout to the douchebag Howard Zinn-reading hipster that you can’t help but feel attracted to that first lottery ticket and cigarette when you first turn 18. One of my favorite touches is the fact that the characters are intentionally given terrible tastes, the same way we all did when we were trying to find ourselves. The clothes are coolly terrible, the music is wonderfully kitsch (a major scene is set to Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River,” and the film features not one, but two key uses of “Crash Into Me” by the Dave Matthews Band, one of which was the film’s climax). It creates a specific mood that captures not only what it was like to come of age in the aughts, but also to come of age, period. Gerwig smartly sets the film in her hometown of Sacramento, as it allows her to find a specificity in community that doesn’t come from, say, a John Hughes movie or a Woody Allen movie. Because Sacramento is so decidedly the opposite of the big city California lifestyle (the opening quote from Joan Didion reads “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento”), it allows Gerwig to relate to the average cities all across America. At one point in the film, Lady Bird refers to Sacramento as the “Midwest of California,” and as someone who grew up in the Midwest…yeah. She nailed it. It’s spot on. Hell, she even captures what it’s like to grow up in a Catholic community, and she does so in just the right way. I wouldn’t call the film “pro-Catholic,” but it certainly isn’t “anti-Catholic.” It’s pleasantly “I’m Unitarian, thank you very much, but you do you and why don’t we be friends,” and quite frankly, I prefer this approach than heavy-handedness one way or the other. And it allows for hilarious material from Lois Smith and Stephen Henderson, so that’s a plus. This is a film that actively chooses not to bother with the clichés, beats, or arcs that would make up your average high school dramedy. It just wants to look at a slice of life, and present it in all its nasty, funny, loving glory.
I think my favorite thing about this film is that this is, arguably, the best portrayal of being a teenager that I have ever seen. Lady Bird is the embodiment of everything that goes along with being a teenager, in all of its contradictions: she’s funny, awkward, smart, naïve, victim, and instigator, all at once. She is constantly in flux as she finds herself in the right, in the right but expressing herself incorrectly, and in the wrong. It’s the type of character we rarely ever get to see from a high school film, let alone any film. Despite the John Hughes ideal of characters who know exactly who they are and what they want, we rarely ever know who we are in high school. Hell, even Mean Girls’ message was about what happens when we doubt the person we’re already set to be – Cady, Regina, and Janis all knew who they were and were set in their ways. High school is a time to find yourself, through mistakes, triumphs, and more. As we watch Lady Bird constantly fail from one scene to the next, and her mother try to help her along the way from one failure to the next, we are reminded of the great fundamental truth in life: most people aren’t truly bad; often, they are very good-hearted. We are all just getting through life with trial and error, failing, trying again, and failing, in order to figure out what works. And quite frankly, that’s actually better – there’s nothing we love more than watching good people overcome their flaws to become great. It’s why we like It’s a Wonderful Life and Rocky, and why high school films that don’t strike this balance just right often fail. Make the teens too unlikable, and you get The Spectacular Now. Make them too perfect, and you get The Brady Bunch. Lady Bird strikes the perfect balance, creating a series of characters that we are allowed to like no matter how flawed they get, and whom we can laugh with, at, and for.
Among the cast, the entire ensemble is great, but there are really only two you’ll come away singing about, and it’s the mother-daughter duo that centers the film’s action. Saorise Ronan continues to wow in her already impressive career, giving her third all-time great performance before she turns 24. She plays Lady Bird as overly confident and yet painfully shy, incredibly intelligent and talented if only she could get out of her own way. She’s a force of nature, and she’s like no other teenager I’ve ever seen onscreen. Meanwhile, Metcalf proves why she’s been arguably the greatest American actress of the past thirty-five years. Marion McPherson is described in the film as “both scary and warm,” as well as “incredibly strong-willed,” and I agree whole-heartedly with both of these sentiments. Marion is a woman who wants the best for everyone in her life, but can’t decipher the mystery that is her daughter. Her heart is so open to everyone that she offers help wherever she can, and you can see the pain it causes her that her daughter refuses her help. Metcalf’s talents are on clear display throughout, as you can clearly see what’s going on in her character’s mind throughout, whether through her verbal digs that she directs at her daughter in the hopes of helping her improve herself or the slightest twitch of the face as she responds to a particularly cruel comment, intentional or otherwise. It’s one of my favorite performances in a long time, maybe of the year, and I hope Metcalf is one day remembered as a true artist for her chameleon-esque abilities. As for the rest of the wonderful ensemble, it seems like Gerwig had fun intentionally putting people against type. Outside of the two leads (Ronan playing an American teenager and Metcalf essentially playing the Roseanne role this time around), popular authoritarian Tracy Letts gets to play Lady Bird’s sweet, emotional, put-upon father Larry, and he will truly win your heart. Meanwhile, resident tough boy Lucas Hedges gets to play the sweet, sensitive drama student Danny, and it’s incredibly nice to see him enjoying himself – although one dramatic scene will grab your heart and refuse to let go. Other great performances include Stephen Henderson as the Father in charge of the drama department, Lois Smith as a strict-but-caring nun (is there any other kind?), Laura Marano as the resident goody-two-shoes, and Jordan Rodrigues and Marielle Scott get in a few great barbs as Lady Bird’s adopted older brother and his girlfriend. Finally, there are two young performers I want to give credit to. Beanie Feldstein is the perfect foil for Ronan’s Lady Bird, playing Julie as funny, flawed, and caring, as every great best friend should be. The sequence involving “Crash Into Me” is painfully realistic, and her audition for the school musical is one of the funniest scenes of the year. And Timothée Chalamet is literally perfection as Kyle, the local intellectual bad boy who reads Howard Zinn while he drinks coffee and waxes philosophically about how “in ten years’ time, the government will use our cell phones as tracking devices, man.” The face he makes after a love scene with Lady Bird is somehow both the funniest f*cking thing I’ve ever seen and somehow completely realistic for the character. It’s pretty much worth the price of admission by itself.
I don’t think I would call Lady Bird perfect. There’s a nitpick here and a nitpick there that could be made. However, if those are my only problems, and the film is about accepting the wonderful in spite of the flaws, then I think it’s fairly simple for me to say that these make up no more than a blemish on the film’s perfect face. This is a great comedy, a great drama, a great high school film, and above all, a great film. It’s easily one of the best in recent memory, capturing a specific period in your life whether you grew up in the Midwest (or Sacramento), participated in high school theater, had a beautifully complicated relationship with your mother, or happened to be a teenage girl. It’s an incredibly special film, and one that you beat not miss out on.