Lady Bird (2017)
[3.5 out of 4 stars]
Dir. Greta Gerwig; Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges
When I finished watching Lady Bird (2017), I had the overwhelming urge to give my mom a hug. The film’s emotional impact sneaks up on you. There are somewhat standard scenes in a teenage girl’s life: getting a job at a coffee shop, graduating from high school, applying to college. But then Lady Bird suddenly launches into moments so genuine and sudden that you almost want to cry: a friend breaking down because he doesn’t know how to tell his parents that he’s gay, a missed opportunity to say goodbye at the airport. These tender moments, and the film itself, are so authentic that they throw viewers off and leave us feeling emotionally shaken.
Lady Bird focuses on Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to go by Lady Bird, a name that was “given to me by me,” she explains. She lives literally “on the wrong side of the tracks” in Sacramento with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who works as a nurse, her father (Tracy Letts), a sweet, supportive man who recently lost his job, and her older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) who, despite their college degrees, work at a supermarket bagging groceries. Lady Bird is a senior at a Catholic high school, but she is not interested in attending any Catholic colleges. She wants to go to the East Coast where, she believes, “the culture is.” But since her dad was laid off, Lady Bird’s parents are struggling to stay afloat, a fact Marion constantly reminds her of; she encourages Lady Bird to attend nearby City College since they “can barely afford in-state tuition.” Nonetheless, Lady Bird dreams of attending school in New York and being part of a wealthier family that can afford to have friends over after school. She and her best friend Julianne “Jules” (Beanie Feldstein) walk past the big, beautiful houses in East Sacramento and fantasize about living there someday. Standing in front of one blue house, their favorite, Lady Bird sighs wistfully: “I could always invite friends over and say things like ‘Mom, we’re taking our snacks into the TV room!’ ”
Watching Lady Bird is a markedly disjointed experience as the camera jumps suddenly from shot to shot and scene to scene. When watching two characters have a conversation, the camera might jump from a medium eye-level shot of one character to a similar shot of the other to a wide shot of the room to a shot of someone entering the room that seems to be from the perspective of no one in particular. The film also cuts from scene to scene with little transition. One scene features Lady Bird and Jules laying on their backs eating communion wafers out of a tub; another features the pair sitting in math class; afterwards we see them auditioning for the fall musical. There is no explanation of these transitions, so we are left to piece together this disconnected style on our own. Yet, somehow it does not come off as confusing or rambling; rather, it is simply a collection of snapshots of Lady Bird’s life. We find that the explanation we might be given in other films is not always necessary, as not everything needs to be expressly said. And Gerwig is able to build her world in its details, close-ups on particular aspects of a scene — Lady Bird’s feet climbing the church steps, a stray cat wandering through a deserted street — that strengthen a moment’s sense of place. Despite the seemingly unconnected style, we find ourselves with a surprisingly full picture of Lady Bird’s life.
One of the most enjoyable parts of the film is the writing, which beautifully elucidates Lady Bird’s incisive, sarcastic personality. She describes Sacramento as “the midwest of California.” When she learns that the boy she lost her virginity to was not, as he had said, a virgin as well, she exclaims “I just had a whole experience that was wrong.” The first two lines of the film quickly establish the messy mother-daughter dynamic that characterizes much of the film: when Lady Bird asks her mom, “Do I look like I’m from Sacramento?”, her mother responds shortly “You are from Sacramento.” While occasionally the lines are a bit theatrical, there is also an honest truth to them. When Lady Bird discovers Jules crying and asks what’s wrong, she replies simply, “I’m just crying. Some people aren’t built happy, you know.”
Ultimately, the true thrust of the film is the relationship between Lady Bird and Marion, and the film makes this clear in its first shot, which shows them asleep next to each other in a close up. In my opinion, the film could have just as easily been called Marion because she plays an equally crucial role. It’s a complicated and messy relationship. At one point, Lady Bird’s friend Danny (Lucas Hedges) says that Marion seems to be pretty harsh on her, to which she replies “Yeah, she loves me a lot.” Later, she asks her father if Marion hates her; at one point, she asks Marion if she even likes her. It’s a hard relationship to characterize, as there is so much love and resentment and frustration mixed up in their exchanges. One of the most poignant scenes in the film occurs as Marion is washing dishes; Lady Bird tries to apologize for being ungrateful and for wanting more out of life as Marion, stone cold silent, swishes soapy water around in the sink. Metcalf is the perfect mixture of incisive and loving; at certain moments, we are struck by her blunt, cutting statements to her daughter, but we also see her in moments of pure kindness, love, and frustration about her own life.
It was extremely refreshing to see a film that relies almost entirely on strong female characters, was directed by a female director, and passes the Bechdel test with flying colors. While Lady Bird doesn’t hit every mark exactly, it’s poignant and touching; I cannot think of another film that so truly and honestly represents the complicated relationship between mother and daughter and the travails of growing up as a teenaged girl. Near the beginning of the film, Lady Bird laments ruefully “I just want to live through something!” only to later realize that she already is.