A Semi-Autographical Directorial Debut
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut follows Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) through her final year of high-school in the early 2000s. The film is semi-autobiographical – Gerwig herself attended a Catholic school in Sacramento.
The narrative centers around Lady Bird’s turbulent relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) who encourages her to work hard and be realistic, while Lady Bird won’t give up on the romantic dream of attending an expensive New York college. It’s a fascinating character study that explores the tension between a child’s big dreams, and the bumpy road to discovering the real world.
Saoirse Ronan is, as we have come to expect, excellent. She captures the strange and awkward see-saw from childhood to adulthood. Lady Bird delights in childish jokes with her best friend while battling frustration with her mother’s constant calls for self-improvement.
The Unselfconscious Confidence of Adolescence
Much of the film’s comedy comes from the unselfconscious confidence of adolescence. Lady Bird’s refusal to accept her limited maths skills, and her beau Kyle’s knowing statements on how the government is using cell phones to track us all.
It would be all too easy for such a personal film to become self-indulgent, but the direction is rigorous, and it was refreshing to leave the cinema after almost exactly 90 minutes. None of the scenes felt superfluous. Some moved the story along, while others were simply comedic moments that felt right at home with the family drama.
There are the typical teen-movie moments – a first boyfriend, a new best friend, first-time sex, and of course, the prom. There are stock teen characters too – the mysterious Kyle and the popular girl Jenna. But almost all of it rings true. None of the teenagers seem impossibly cool.
You see the teens fumbling their lines as they negotiate their grown-up identities. Even the exotic Jenna, whom Lady Bird sees as impossibly gorgeous, doesn’t want to leave Sacramento and ‘just’ wants to be a mom. Although the prom plays a redemptive role, there isn’t a magic makeover or the crowning of a new prom queen. It’s just another beautifully painted vignette of an important moment in a teenage girl’s life.
A Bright and Breezy Feature
Visually, the film is bright and breezy. Despite the sunshine, Lady Bird sees Sacramento as unforgivably dull – “the mid-west of California”. It’s difficult to take this as anything more than an adolescent desire to break free from her family and carve her own identity.
Gerwig has said she wanted the film to feel “like a memory” and the bright sunshine and color palette of pinks, blues, and yellows achieve this without becoming overly whimsical.
However, tv sets playing news items about the Iraq war seemed like a somewhat forced way to reference the time-period of the film. 2002 just doesn’t yet seem long enough ago to have its own visual shorthand. Seeing Lady Bird arrive at a house party to Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry me a river’ does the job well enough.
Ultimately, the time and the setting of the film, though so obviously personal to Gerwig, don’t matter. Anyone who has experienced the comically heightened emotions and self-importance of being a teenager should find something to relate to here. It’s a hugely enjoyable watch that pulls off the balancing act of portraying both the pain and the sheer joy of finding your place in the world, and in your family.