Film Review: Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig’s first solo film as writer-director, Lady Bird, is tart and funny, occasionally moving and efficiently put together. It’s the sort of semi-precious, expertly curated indie that Hollywood churns out with ease and regularity now—the children of Little Miss Sunshine and Noah Baumbach. Compared to the other festival breakout of 2017, Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Gerwig’s film doesn’t strike me as particularly novel, but reviews were uniformly enthusiastic when it released in the US, and when awards season arrived, it was a contender. It won two Golden Globes, including Best Musical or Comedy Motion Picture, and has five Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress, Supporting Actress).
In the opening minutes of the film, we see Christine (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), in their car. They’ve just finished listening, tearfully, to The Grapes of Wrath. No sooner do they begin to talk, though, than they start arguing. Christine listens, fumes, and suddenly opens the door and throws herself out of the moving vehicle. Gerwig cuts from Marion’s panicked yell to Christine’s hand in plaster. This extreme action isn’t mentioned for the rest of the film. It isn’t supposed to be revealing of Christine’s pathology, it’s just a gag; Steve Carrel did the exact same thing in Crazy Stupid Love.
Christine—or “Lady Bird”, as she’s styled herself—isn’t suicidal or emotionally disturbed, she’s just desperate to leave her hometown of Sacramento and go study in a place with “culture”, away from her hyper-critical mother. Her family isn’t well-off: her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), has been laid off, and Marion works as a nurse and keeps a wary eye on expenses. We aren’t privy to how good a student Christine is—she’s shown applying for scholarships, but never studying. Instead, we see her in the company of her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and the two boys she falls for, sweet Sondheim-singing Danny (Lucas Hedges) and sour existentialist bassist Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).
There are some teen movie clichés this film can’t dodge—the rich kids are affected and mean, while the less well-off ones are nicer human beings (Danny comes from money, but he’s vulnerable, so he’s allowed to be nice as well). Most of the characters, though, are sketched with empathy: The nun (played by Lois Smith) who runs the Catholic school Lady Bird attends reacts to a couple close-dancing with “Six inches for the Holy Spirit”, but is broadminded enough to forgive an ill-advised prank played on her. Larry, though wonderfully played by Letts, isn’t too different from the sympathetic dads essayed by J.K. Simmons and Stanley Tucci in Juno and Easy A, but Marion is wholly memorable. Despite the precise grenades she keeps lobbing her daughter’s way, you can sense Gerwig’s respect for the character, whose love for her daughter is inextricably linked with trying to improve her at every opportunity . Metcalf, a well-known theatre actor, is up for an Oscar; she deserves it for her matter-of-fact reading of “My mother was an abusive alcoholic” (that this is the capper to an argument over unfolded clothes gives you some idea of how quickly the conversations between mother and daughter in this film escalate).
Lady Bird herself is a well-realised creation, both driven and uncoordinated in her search for cultural and social uplift. She’s appealing uncool, flubbing her attempts at flirting with both her crushes, yet also intriguing enough—with her streaked hair and eccentric speech—to attract them anyway. Her relationship with her mother is the film’s through-line; the hurt experienced on both sides feels vivid and genuine. Their sparring cuts through the routines of heartache and reconciliation that are supposed to indicate Lady Bird’s growth as a person but are too gentle and politically correct to have much of an impact.
Instead of comparing Lady Bird to other Oscar nominees or speculating on its chances, I’ll end by recommending a film from last year it reminded me of. Columbus is entirely unlike Lady Bird except that it’s also about a young girl (Haley Lu Richardson, in a luminous turn that deserved wider notice) in a small town whose dreams of studying at a prestigious university are complicated by her family’s financial circumstances. With its low-wattage emotional pull and precise visual compositions, the film, directed by video essayist Kogonada, seeps into your brain and rests there quietly, unlike the more accessible, forthright invasion of Lady Bird. This isn’t to say that either film is “better” than the other, just that there exists a whole world of cinema beyond the Oscars and the kind of films it deems worthy.