Lady Bird (NYFF 2017)
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird doesn’t feel like a first film. It’s more mature, more cinematically eloquent than that. Gerwig has already done most jobs in the film industry, including acting and writing and co-directing, so directing her first solo feature is hardly a big jump. But unlike many actors turned directors, there is not even a hint of self-indulgence in her film; not a glimmer of smugness or egotism. She simply tells the story, with intelligence and quirky humor and an awkwardness that can only approximate the mind and emotions of a teenage girl.
Saoirse Ronan is Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson, a high school senior in Sacramento, where she attends a Catholic high school because, as her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) says, her elder brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) “saw a kid stabbed” in the public school. The film encompasses all of Lady Bird’s senior year, as she shifts identities according to her social desires, spars with her mother and father (Tracy Letts), and hopes to get into a New York college, despite her mother’s constant admonition that they cannot afford to send her out of state. She hangs out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), finds a tentative romance with Danny (Lucas Hedges), and flirts with social anarchism via Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).
But Lady Bird is more than the sum of its parts. I’ve tried – and failed – to think of another film that so sharply and humorously shows what it’s like to be a teenage girl. Lady Bird’s shifting identities reveal a combination of uncertainty and confidence, a desire to fit in and a desire to stand out. She tells everyone to call her Lady Bird – a nickname she gives herself and that is never explained – because she rejects the idea that her parents should be allowed to name her, and thus identify her. But she seems to have difficulty discovering her own identity, or accepting those parts of her life that are bequeathed to her by her family. Many of her friends and classmates are wealthy, and she dreams of living in the big houses on the “right side of the tracks,” where she goes to Thanksgiving with Danny. Her father’s job is in jeopardy, her mother works double shifts in the psychiatric ward of a local hospital, her brother and his girlfriend graduated from Berkeley but have to work at the grocery, but Lady Bird has ambitions to escape Sacramento for the excitement of New York City. She in love many different ideas, and not quite able to fulfill any of them. She’s not unaware of her family’s circumstances but, as with many children and teenagers, she doesn’t seem to understand just how difficult it is for them to get by.
Class and religion are not the focus of the film, yet they do drive much of the narrative, integrated as they are into the characters’ lives and desires. Lady Bird’s class consciousness is immature as yet, and she flirts with various performative identities as a way of standing out. There are moments of high hilarity and joy, as when she joins the school’s drama club for a Sondheim production, and moments where she’s petty and mean, rejecting good friends in order to be accepted by the cool kids. As basically predictable as these plot points are, Lady Bird transcends them by making them real. Yes, teenage girls really do try on identities in the same way they try on clothes. Yes, they do sometimes drop good friendships in order to find some social acceptance in bad ones. And, yes, they do fall for overly cool boys who are just douchebags. These things happen in real life and Lady Bird treats them with the seriousness and the humor that they demand, weaving them into a complex fabric that makes them an organic part of the characters’ lives.
There is also something so fundamentally believable about these characters. They are fully realized people whose lives we are allowed to watch. Yes, they are sometimes types, but they never clichéd. These are human beings, not symbols, and they live whole and sometimes tragic lives. Drama and comedy go hand in hand; there are moments of cringe-worthy humor and all-too-human meanness. While the film is often uproariously funny, it’s also poignant, and we are never asked to really laugh at the different people who come in and out of Lady Bird’s life. They are people, too. In this, Gerwig is already a mature director with a deep respect for her medium and the characters that permeate it.
The supporting cast here are excellent, but the stand out – the co-star, really – of the film is Laurie Metcalf, who deserves an Oscar and more for her multifaceted performance as Lady Bird’s mother Marion. It’s as much a movie about her as it is about Lady Bird. She’s trying to learn to let go, worried about her daughter’s future and intensely critical of her choices at the same time. She’s an acerbic character, but never shrill, never deliberately vicious, even if she is sometimes a bit cruel. There is one scene in particular nearing the end as the camera dwells on Metcalf’s face as it transforms with a tapestry of conflicting emotions, culminating in one of the most heartbreaking and beautiful moments in the film. I’ve always appreciated Metcalf as a comedienne, and now I truly appreciate her as an actress.
At another time, on a second or third or fourth watch, I’m sure I will be able to find something to criticize about Lady Bird. But right now, having ruminated on this film for a full day, there is little to nitpick. It’s a beautiful film, very funny, and profoundly moving. Gerwig the director can only improve from here, and that’s incredibly exciting.