Synopsis: The adventures of a young woman living in Northern California for a year.
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott
Director: Greta Gerwig
Running Length: 93 minutes
TMMM Score: (7/10)
Review: There was a time in the not so distant past when Greta Gerwig and I weren’t on speaking terms. I know when the rift started: Frances Ha. While Gerwig’s collaboration with writer/director Noah Baumbach became an indie twee delight, it didn’t bowl me over in the slightest. Finding Gerwig’s titular character vapid, vain, and selfish, I just couldn’t get into the film and struggled to even finish it. Gerwig’s popped up here and there in the following years, to better results, in Mistress America, Jackie, and 20th Century Women but it’s Lady Bird where our fences can be considered mended.
A thinly veiled but admittedly autobiographical look at Gerwig’s years as a teen in Sacramento in the late ‘90s, Lady Bird is going to be compared to Juno and with just cause. Both are female led films that find a truth to their portrayal of adolescence and an authenticity in how teens and adults struggle to find common ground while just trying to make it through the day. The difference between the two is that looking back at Juno it seems like it arrived from another wacky dimension while Lady Bird is already a period piece so there’s less chance of it becoming rapidly dated.
About to enter her senior year of high school, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, How I Live Now) demands that her family and friends call her Lady Bird and wants to attend college as far away from her Northern California town as possible. She dreams of a life surrounded by arts and artists, while her mother (Laurie Metcalf, Uncle Buck) wants her daughter to come down from the clouds and understand that community college may be the best she can do. With a father (Tracy Letts, The Post) that just lost his job and a brother living at home with his goth girlfriend, there isn’t much space for Lady Bird to breathe.
A small chance at happiness shows up in the drama department’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. Cast in the ensemble, she falls for the leading man (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea) who is both her first love and first heartbreak. Feeling like she has to climb higher socially than she can sticking by her best friend (Beanie Feldstein, who was wonderful in Broadway’s Hello Dolly!) she ingratiates herself with the popular girl (Odeya Rush, Goosebumps) and takes up with an alt-emo boy (Timothée Chalamet, Call Me By Your Name). As the school year draws to a close and the great unknown future awaits, Lady Bird will learn tough lessons about finding one’s place and making a unique path toward happiness.
As she did in Brooklyn, Ronan is able to find a mainline to your heart without making it seem like a huge effort. That’s surprising because her Brooklyn character was warm and selfless, and Lady Bird is anything but that. Constantly sucking the air from any room she’s in and preventing others from finding their own orbit, Lady Bird is a force of nature and while it can be easy to get frustrated with her it’s just as easy to feel her pain as dreams she makes for herself vanish just as fast as they take shape. If you’ve ever heard Gerwig talk it’s instantly clear that her voice comes through loud and clear not only in Ronan’s performance (Ronan channels Gerwig in eerie ways) but in the thoughts and ideas expressed by other characters.
Ronan isn’t the only star of the show here, though. She gets the movie stolen away from here more than a few times by Metcalf as her steely mother. Though the movie opens with mother and daughter waking up staring into each other’s eyes, both women soon wind up in an argument that bursts whatever peaceful bubble they had formed. Scene after we scene we see Metcalf deliberately divert attention away from her daughter if she feels she’s getting too big for her britches or cast a spotlight on her when she makes the wrong move. It sounds bad, but she’s doing what every parent tries to do but doesn’t always succeed in…help their child see that life is tough with the least amount of outside pain as possible. It’s easy to see part of oneself in these moments when a child will push their parent’s buttons or the parent cuts their teen down just to prove their point. I know I winced a few times when I recognized actions I’ve had in my own life.
If you’re already a fan of Gerwig’s, you’re going to get a lot of satisfaction out of her directorial debut which will likely earn her a place on the shortlist for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. Expect Ronan and Metcalf to earn nominations as well for their deeply felt and carefully layered performances. If you’re just coming around to Gerwig like I am you’ll find it easier than ever to use Lady Bird to fly back into the fold.