What often makes Greta Gerwig’s first solo directing effort Lady Bird so astounding at times is how distinctly feminine the film is throughout. This film oozes with the female gaze as girls fawn over the boys around them, Gerwig capturing them in a heavenly light typically reserved for the female love interests. Gerwig also demonstrates an intimate knowledge of the problems found in mother-daughter relationships. Lady Bird is a frank, honest, and achingly authentic look at the life of a girl who is a bit selfish, a bit manic, a whole lot of awkward, and entirely lost.
Living in Sacramento, Christine/Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) wades the awkward minefield that is Catholic school as her strict mother (Laurie Metcalf) and her fight daily, her dad (Tracy Letts) tries to be the good guy, her older brother and his girlfriend live in the home, and the family is poor while she goes to school with and in the upper crust of Sacramento. Developing themes centering around mother-daughter relationships, the changing of the times in a recently post-9/11 world (the film is set in 2002/2003), income disparity, depression, awkward adolescence, and homosexuality, Lady Bird may not be exactly a breathe of fresh air in execution as it covers much of the same ground as countless coming-of-age films that have been made before. However, as with The Edge of Seventeen, what makes Lady Bird stand out and truly resonate is the fact that this is not a girl’s life as seen by men. Instead, it is one written and directed by a woman with the film benefiting tremendously from Gerwig’s lived experiences. This film, at its core, feels like her life and this is what makes Lady Bird so impactful.
The theme that Gerwig works with that is perhaps most prevalent is the mother-daughter relationship. As Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf trade blows, sparring with one another over the most common issues, and quickly alternate between a loving pair to one that fights and then back again, Lady Bird hits a great emotional nerve. As people tell Lady Bird that her mother Marion loves her, as Lady Bird says her mom hates her, as Lady Bird laments that her mother loves her but does not like her, and then as she is caught in moments of honesty where she admits her mother loves her, the film creates this display of two headstrong women fighting due to their similarities rather than animosity. They love one another, but both feel insecure and awkward. They both hate their living conditions and struggle to express their feelings in a normal fashion, leading to their constant bickering. Marion wishes she could have provided Lady Bird with more, but cannot seem to get this message across. Lady Bird, through intuition, knows but through teenage angst fights against it and instead positions her mother as a person who limits her freedom, all while her mother looms over her waiting to discipline her for not putting away her clothes before leaving the house. Yet, at their core, the two love one another deeply and struggle to find the words to express this emotion. This mutual understanding, this tumultuous relationship, and excellent performances from Ronan and Metcalf, make Lady Bird ring with authenticity. However, it is the film’s writing that makes it so impeccably powerful.
Weaving together this relationship with the one between Lady Bird and the City of Sacramento, the film shows her expressed disdain for the city but, as Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) points out in regards to Lady Bird’s personal essay, she loves the city. She may say she does not, but the way in which she writes about the city, the way she appreciates every little detail, and the way she pays attention, she unintentionally displays her affection for the city. In her words, “are caring and attention not the same?”. The same can be said for Lady Bird and Marion’s relationship, as they both pay attention to one another and though they may protest that they care, their constant hounding and guiding of one another’s actions demonstrate the level to which they do care. This similarly ties into one of the greatest problems demonstrated by Lady Bird. She never appreciates what she has, where she is, or what she is doing, until the moment is over. As her mother and her listen to an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath in the opening scene, Lady Bird immediately wants to listen to the radio once the book is over while Marion asks to let the emotion of what they just listened to stick with them for a bit longer. This quickly turns into an argument in which Lady Bird laments that nothing happens to her or in the world, she does not live in a moment or in a place of any value as she would rather be on the East Coast. This phenomenon in which she believes nothing happens to her or that she has nothing is quickly countered through repeated imagery regarding 9/11 and the impending wars in the Middle East and the changes in society as a result of 9/11 (fear of being in New York, not being able to go to the gates in airports, namely). Gerwig’s camera consistently finds images of news coverage regarding foreign policy or shots of memorials for 9/11, which both captures the post-9/11 paranoia that ripped through the American public but also captures the fact that this is a moment. No, it is not the depression from Grapes of Wrath, but it is its own time and one that will be remembered, being poured over for years to come and being represented in films such as this one. Her problems with appreciating what is happening or what is going on further extends to her hometown of Sacramento and her friendship with Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Only missing Sacramento once she leaves for school and only missing Julie once she ditches her to hang out with cooler friends, Lady Bird is a girl who never appreciates what she has and always wants more, only realizing that it was enough for her when it is gone.
Of course, Gerwig uses Grapes of Wrath in more ways than just citing it as an example of one the many defined “eras” that people have come to recognize. Where Gerwig takes it a step further is in showing how the problems depicted in that era – poverty, fear, income disparity, and depression – are still prevalent today. Lady Bird’s father Danny uses antidepressants. Her mother is a psychiatric nurse. A priest at her school is depressed. Everybody is afraid in this post-9/11 world of what could come next. Lady Bird and her family live on the “wrong side of the tracks” as she fantasizes about life in her dream house in the rich side of Sacramento so much that she lies to her fake/new friend Jenna (Odeya Rush), claiming to live in that home. This parallel between the “haves” and the “have nots” is further established as Lady Bird and her mother visit various open houses, seeing the homes they cannot have. Lady Bird’s knowledge is demeaned by school counselors and her own mother, while all the adults around her encourage her to go to a state school because of her family’s financial issues. This is a city and a film about depression, about income disparity, and about the fear of what could come next when people already have so little. For Gerwig, she sees these parallels between the depression-era and the early 2000s that she grew up in, neatly weaving them into this film as a way to show the society and structure of Sacramento. Though technology has been upgraded significantly and the realization of the problems are different, the root cause of the problems are the same: fear, overwhelming sadness, and poverty.
Furthermore, Gerwig adds a great modern touch to the film through the character of Danny (Lucas Hedges). An awkward boy from a wealthy Irish Catholic family, Danny quickly becomes Lady Bird’s first boyfriend after they meet at theater try-outs. Though they fall head-over-heels for one another, Lady Bird is shocked to find Danny making out with a boy when she goes into the men’s locker room due to the long line in the women’s bathroom. Breaking up then and there, Danny comes back later to apologize to Lady Bird for what she saw and how he never meant to hurt her, leading to a scene that is certainly melodramatic but incredibly powerful. Collapsing into Lady Bird’s arms, telling her he is gay, and begging her to not tell his parents, Gerwig’s camera lingers on the moment as Hedges sobs violently, resting his shoulder on Ronan, and with Ronan gently caressing his back to comfort him. It is a stunning moment that, in a film not really focused on such social issues, may seem out of place. However, as both Lady Bird and Danny attend Catholic school, Gerwig uses it as a way to highlight the need for acceptance. Danny fears being accepted by his staunchly Catholic family, which is a battle fought by Lady Bird to some extent. As her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) had done before her, Lady Bird is rebelling. She turns her back on her parents, is embarrassed by her father, pretends to be rich, wants to go to school on the East Coast to escape her town, turns her back on Julie to hang out with the popular and rich Jenna, and she goes out with anti-economy musician rebel Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). For her, Sacramento, her family, this school, and her friends, are not where she is intended to belong. Thus, it is no wonder to see Lady Bird supporting Danny in his search to find out who he is and who he is meant to be with. In many ways, it is what inspires her to do her own internal search and gauge where she is meant to be, who she is meant to be with, and what she feels about those around her. It is a transformative and greatly adult moment for Lady Bird, flying in the face of the consistent immaturity she feels. It is also a moment that leads to her eventually realizing, as previously mentioned, that what and who she wants is right there for her in Sacramento, not in New York.
Though a lot of the problems in the established mother-daughter relationship stem from issues surrounding Lady Bird in school, it is also where many of the film’s shortcomings are found. Dealing with strict but sometimes cool nuns, being in an all-girl school, having relationship issues, and more, Lady Bird goes through this final awkward time of one’s formative years with every ounce of awkwardness one would expect. In bumbling about with Danny, naming stars, or her girlish expression when falling for him the first time she saw him, Lady Bird certainly endears herself to the audience as does Julie when she swoons over her math teacher. However, it is in these awkward endeavors that Lady Bird is so often underwhelming. The relationships with Danny and Kyle ring with the small details that make you know they are real – namely Lady Bird writing their names on her wall, only to then cross them out when they break up – and have all of the awkward forceful touches of a youth relationship- losing of virginity, “you know you can touch my boobs”, “if I marry Danny…”, and rushing to say “I love you” – that make them wholly endearing, funny, and entirely charming to watch. However, it is in these moments that Lady Bird often settles into the typical groove of many coming-of-age films that show these young kids wanting so badly to grow up but being too inexperienced and awkward about realizing this intention. Compared to the development of the mother-daughter relationship, the development of Lady Bird’s awkward time in Catholic school might be a realistic portrayal, but one that is never ground-breaking. It isn’t handled in such a way that is uniquely the vision of Gerwig, instead settling into genre clichés about the awkwardness of high school and coming of age. While I, likely many others, appreciate their inclusion in Lady Bird, it is hard to cite the film’s adherence to these clichés as anything other than a bit underwhelming. For a film being championed as so transcendental, unique, and exceptional, it seems a bit too eager to revert to clichés. When Gerwig focuses in on her more unique parallels regarding post-9/11 America, the subplot about homosexuality and what that moment means for Lady Bird, and the issues regarding Lady Bird and her mom, the film soars and reaches new heights. However, there is always a come down. The film retains its truthfulness in scenes such as Lady Bird ditching prom to hang out with Julie instead with both eating and fawning over their prom dresses, but is far too predictable and often feels “been there, done that” when it comes to cinema. Gerwig’s lens amplifies these moments and gives them a uniquely feminine twist- instead a young boy reading Playboy, we see Lady Bird flip through Playgirl– but stops short of turning the largely male-dominated coming-of-age genre on its head.
As with the themes in the film, it is often the acting of the film that elevates it above competing coming-of-age films. In her role, Saoirse Ronan demonstrates the same innocent maturity that has endeared her to audiences for years. Whether it was her roles in films such as The Grand Budapest Hotel or Brooklyn, Ronan has a great ability to both capture the youthful aspirations of her characters and their yearning for adulthood and new adventures. Far more hard-nosed and worldly than her doe-eyed character in Brooklyn, Ronan nonetheless demonstrates the same grace, nuance, and care in this role, capturing the very essence of who Lady Bird is as a person. This, perhaps more than ever, is shown when she yells at her mother towards the end of the film. Having gone behind her back to apply to a college in New York, Marion is refusing to speak to Lady Bird. Yelling at her that she knows she is ungrateful, that she does not appreciate her mother as much as she should, that she is a bad kid, and that she loves her mother more than words can truly express, Ronan captures the franticness, the passion, and the raw emotions that Lady Bird feels in that moment, making the scene land with power. Ronan doubles down on this dramatic turn by demonstrating great wit and charm in the film’s lighter or gooier moments as she jokes around with her pal Julie or as she falls in love with the new boy of the week. Though Lady Bird may not inherently be a character the audience would root for her due to her rebelliousness and youthful ignorance of those around her, Ronan turns this possibly unlikable character into one we grow to love and root for along the way, seeing past her rough exterior for the good-hearted and caring person she truly is at her core. She is wayward and unsure of where to go next, but she is not lost and simply needs guidance on where to go. Ronan’s ability to capture this is what makes her performance one of the year’s absolute finest.
Alongside her, Laurie Metcalf is brilliant as her mother, demonstrating this as she races to say goodbye to Lady Bird at the airport only to barely miss her at security. A grown-up version of Lady Bird, she means well but has no idea how to communicate it and, like many parents before her, fears seeing her daughter turn into a younger version of herself. Always frantic and concerned, Metcalf’s performance should earn her an Academy Award nomination and, should she win, it would be equally as deserved. In smaller roles, Tracy Letts shines, Lucas Hedges pulls on our heartstrings with an endearing awkwardness and wit that previously allowed him to steal the show and shine in Manchester by the Sea, and Timothée Chalamet’s charisma and natural “coolness” allow his against-the-system musician character to stand out as one of the more enjoyable supporting characters in the film.
An incredibly honest, feminine, and funny film, Lady Bird is a film that benefits greatly from the strong direction of Greta Gerwig and a great script that demonstrates deftness in developing its themes and managing to be both witty and uproariously funny – especially the running gag of the football coach directing the school play – without stealing the spotlight from the emotional drama on display. Lady Bird is a film about a girl trying to find herself in a world that is changing (homosexuality and technology), is afraid of the future (socially, politically, and technologically), and is unsure of where it is headed. Its personal touches from the experiences and life of Gerwig are noticed and appreciated, turning Lady Bird into a film that is largely a reflection of Gerwig’s own mind, ideas, and experiences. It is these personal touches that lend to the film’s great authenticity and, in turn, makes it such a powerful and resonating experience throughout.