Whenever a film receives a lot of praise from the critics, I’m always a bit skeptical. After all, is it really possible for a film to be that good?
Leave it to a film like Lady Bird to prove me absolutely wrong.
The film is, at first glance, a straightforward coming-of-age story. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) feels trapped in her humdrum teenage life in Sacramento, and she is particularly dissatisfied with the vision that her mother (Laurie Metcalf) has of her life and her future. She yearns for a brighter future outside of Sacramento, of going to a college on the East Coast and escaping.
One of the things that really stood out to me as I watched the film was how well it captured the ethos of 2002 (when the film begins). From the Justin Timberlake playing on the radio to the references to 9/11 to the barely-concealed poverty that afflicts Lady Bird’s family, so much of it rang true to my own remembrances of that time (I was roughly the same age as Lady Bird at the time).
Lady Bird is a film about how incredibly awkward it is to be a teenager. Sure, it can be exhilarating and exciting to do all the teenage things–apply to college, act in a play, even sleep with boys–but there also the flip side of these things. You don’t always get into the college that you wanted (despite your highest hopes), you don’t always get the part that you think you deserve (and you have to pretend to be happy for your best friend who does), and boys can be real shits.
It’s worth pointing out the absolute brilliance of Ronan. She manages to make Lady Bird a charismatic and likable character, even if she does do and say some pretty shitty things to both her family and her friends. Ronan, however, imbues her with a paradoxical awkward grace, a teenager who is at once supremely confident in her abilities yet profoundly uncomfortable with her impending adulthood. She likes to think that she is ready for the great big world of college, but throughout the film she increasingly realizes that this might not be as true as she would like to believe. While she is sometimes selfish and carelessly cruel, Lady Bird also has a proud and empathetic heart. Like all of us (teenagers and otherwise), she’s a contradictory person, and the film shows those contradictions in all their messy details.
It is also a film about the tensions that inevitably arise even when a mother and a daughter love one another fiercely. While there wasn’t as much attention to the “mama drama” component of the narrative as the trailers had led me to expect, the fraught relationship between Lady Bird and her mother is still one of the most important aspects of the film. Though it’s clear that they love one another, I’m still not entirely sure that they like each other. And, indeed, that is one of the questions the film asks: should parents and children like one another, or should they be content to love each other? Is it even possible to do both and still maintain a healthy parent/child relationship?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Metcalf threatens to steal the show. She has one of those faces that conveys a certain world-weary sadness in tandem with a frantic energy. There are several moments in the film when the camera is just about to cut away from her, and we see a certain frown twitch her lips downward, a mute testimony to the conflicted, yet intense, love she bears for her troublesome daughter. Just as Lady Bird feels burdened by her family, Marion bears her own scars and burdens, the result of her own soured relationship with her mother (briefly alluded to) and the family’s struggle with impending poverty. She knows that Lady Bird is ashamed of their circumstances, and it clearly breaks her heart. For all that, though, she clearly loves her fiercely.
The secondary characters also deserve praise. Lois Smith exudes grandmotherly charm as Sister Sarah Joan (and come on, who doesn’t love Lois Smith in literally anything?) Beanie Feldstein is also sublime as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, imbuing the role with a careless ease. Lucas Hedges also deserves praise for his charming awkwardness as Danny, Lady Bird’s onetime boyfriend who comes out to her in one of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes.
Director Gerwig has a strong sense of atmosphere, and Lady Bird’s house manages to convey both comfort and imprisonment at the same time, a doubling that is true of Sacramento as a whole. Both home and city have a stale beauty about them.
Gerwig crafts a compelling yet simple portrait of the pleasures and pitfalls of female adolescence: the torment of young love, sublime joy of friendship, the conflicted feelings of family. Hopefully, the film’s critical acclaim heralds more such stories from Hollywood.
Executives, are you listening?