‘Lady Bird’ is an affecting study of adolescent uncertainty
Lady Bird is almost completely its own thing. Sure, it’s thematically comparable to other 2017 releases — Columbus, Call Me By Your Name — but in personality it really does stand on its own. Greta Gerwig’s film is mercifully independent of her (sometimes overbearingly) narcissistic performing persona — all quirky, self-conscious mannerisms and spontaneous dancing — but finds its own earnest feminine voice through the performances of Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, the well-realised working class Californian setting and a range of directorial choices from the music (Dave Matthews Band sound really damn good in the right context) to the pacing (91 minute running time is a miracle). Lady Bird is essentially an interesting female spin on the final hour of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and — in the words of one eloquent supporting character — It’s Hella Tight!
Ronan, giving by far her best performance since Atonement, is Christine “Lady Bird”, a high-school senior with weird hair (not, in length nor texture, too unlike my own), weird aspirations and a weird relationship with her mom that sees them sobbing at the Grapes of Wrath book-on-tape one minute and yelling about money the next. She also runs for class president every year with funky posters. Yeah… in a lot of ways she’s quite like me.
So Lady Bird wants a few things: she wants to have sex, she wants to leave Sacramento and she wants to become an East Coast intellectual — even though she doesn’t know who Jim Morrison is, doesn’t seem to read books, doesn’t ever make cultural allusions… whatever, I’ll give her a pass. She attends a Catholic girls school where they perform Merrily We Roll Along for the annual musical and pull pranks on the nuns to gain popularity. You’d never guess, but Lady Bird achieves pretty much all of her goals throughout the film, with some hiccups and hijinks along the way.
There are a hundred ways this film could be insufferable, or just plain irksome, but by some magic trick it all comes together with a fluidity and sincerity of heart that marks Gerwig as a much more promising director than she has any right to be. The strands of Lady Bird’s narrative come and go — Metcalf gets some brilliant scenes, but so do Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet (displaying a real comic/assholic flare after his stunning turn in Call Me By Your Name — he and Ronan may both walk home with Oscars in February) as her potential lovers Danny and Kyle, and an assortment of other players as friends, classmates and other ‘victims’ of this big, bright personality they call The Lady Bird.
On occasion the film defaults to cliche: several scenes before Lady Bird raises the concept of the ‘cut to’, we indeed cut to she and Kyle in intense make-out mode, losing the contextual assumptions that — in spirit — the film is arguably all about. Lady Bird’s relationship with her father (Tracy Letts) is — while definitely on the spectrum of father/daughter bonds that I always find moving in films — nothing we haven’t seen before.
I’m best able to identify whether or not a film has genuinely won me over when I consider if there are standout moments I would choose to revisit out of context. A film like Get Out, loved by so many, provides no such memorable highlight(s) in my mind. But like Call Me By Your Name or Columbus or the other films I have really, really liked this year, Lady Bird has quite a few. Driving to the Prom with Kyle, “Crash Into Me” comes on the radio — it’s been established that Lady Bird cries to this song — and Kyle is all “ugh I hate this song”. It’s like the inverse of the “Love My Way” thread of Call Me, with Chalamet more-or-less swapping roles. Lady Bird tells Kyle that, actually, she loves “Crash Into Me”. Conviction, spirit, independence: traits of a great character; traits of an immediate, impressive directorial debut.