There’s a bit near the beginning of Lady Bird that has made it into most of the trailers, and also shown up in most of the awards shows in which it has been nominated this year, because it pops. That this clip is so much better in context says it all about Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, a coming-of-age comedy that plays the humdrum hometown blues magnificently from beginning to end.
The film opens mid-road trip, with 18-year-old Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) dabbing their eyes at the end of a marathon listen to The Grapes Of Wrath on tape. Both mother and daughter alike are moved by the hopeful final passage, but one wants to put some music on and the other wants to sit in silence and reflect. The mood changes on a dime, and as the two start to bicker, we segue into that already familiar moment, in which Lady Bird undoes her seatbelt and hurls herself out of the moving car.
That’s not even the inciting incident of the film, which is more of a slice-of-life story, but the opening scene alone perfectly encapsulates the changeable relationship between these two characters throughout Gerwig’s script. There are dramatic gestures (though none so dramatic as the one that leaves Lady Bird’s arm encased in a bright pink pot signed “Fuck you Mom” for the first half of the film) and hurtful words exchanged, as Gerwig paints a consummate picture of a difficult mother-daughter relationship, between a protective and concerned adult and a child who’s only just on the cusp of adulthood.
The main bone of contention between the two is Lady Bird’s education. Starting in 2002, the film covers her final year at a Catholic high school, and she’s dying to get out of Sacramento and go to a college in “a city with culture”, or, frankly, anywhere that’s not Sacramento, while her mother encourages her to be realistic, given their family’s financial situation. Over an eventful year, she joins a school theatre club with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), falls for theatre nerd Danny (Lucas Hedges) and then nihilistic musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and stubbornly insists that she’s gotta get out of this place.
It may not sound like much laid out like that, but Lady Bird‘s major success, and the reason why the film has really connected with audiences and awards voters alike, is that it’s a familiar sort of film that nevertheless sings with originality. Despite a semi-autobiographical bent, the characters all feel real and distinctive, rather than satellites around a self-involved memoir.
Gerwig grew up in Sacramento too, so there’s some basic superficial authenticity to the setting, of the kind that comes easily in these movies, but you can’t fake the care that goes into each and every character. From Lady Bird and Marion, to the secondary characters like the adorkable Julie, right down to drama coach Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley Henderson), who has his own fascinating arc going on way in the background of the story, they all contribute to the lived-in feeling of the film.
On top of that, it’s a brilliantly cast movie – more than just Ronan and Metcalf, who have both been deservingly nominated up and down this year’s awards season for their roles, you have Hedges and Chalamet each holding up realistic but opposite ends of the teenage male experience, similarly still finding themselves as adulthood beckons, while Feldstein (who previously really stood out in Bad Neighbours 2, of all films) is perfectly utilised here as Lady Bird’s loyal sidekick. Letts is a terrific screen dad too – like everyone here, there’s more to him than there appears, but his understated performance brings both empathy and hilarity when needed.
It is really funny too, running the emotional gamut of those later teenage years in quotable fashion, boosting its characters when they triumph as well as exploring the sadder and more cringeworthy recesses of their failures. It can’t hurt that it moves apace either – not a second is wasted. Coupled with a strong but subtle dramatic current, this makes the funny stuff funnier, and as the film winds down and its central conceit becomes clear as day, there’s a near-universal appeal to this particular spin on the coming-of-age teen movie.
We’d recommend double-billing this with Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge Of Seventeen, a film that similarly follows an acerbic teenage girl and her rocky relationships with loved ones, but didn’t get the same amount of attention and acclaim as Lady Bird has enjoyed when it was released in 2016. Both are distinctive in their own right, but would also complement each other extremely well.
Greta Gerwig the writer already has her fans, but Greta Gerwig the director has really come out swinging with Lady Bird, a witty, well-observed comedy that boasts real emotional range and clarity, without ever resorting to the same old story beats. Personally, I’ve found that Greta Gerwig the actress has had a slightly spottier filmography, starring in a fair few movies made by self-obsessed dudes for self-obsessed dudes, so it’s really gratifying to see that her own first feature behind the camera is a wide-lensed exploration of growing pains and maturity. Specific as it is, there’s something for everyone here.