Director: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott, Odeya Rush, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith
MPAA Rating: (for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying)
Running Time: 1:33
Release Date: 11/3/17 (limited); 11/10/17 (wider)
Review by Mark Dujsik | November 9, 2017
There's a certain attention to detail in Lady Bird that could only come from a filmmaker exploring her own past. Some of the little details include a throwaway line about the uselessness of toothpaste, coming from a father who likely enjoys sharing his knowledge of the trivial information that he has picked up along the way, and a scene in which a coach, having been recruited to direct the high school production of The Tempest, takes to the blocking of a scene as if it were a football play. There are others, too, like the moment near the beginning of the film when a daughter and mother can barely hold back tears while finishing an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath on a road trip.
That moment somehow leads to an argument, at which point the daughter opens the car door and tosses herself on to the passing street. Did that actually happen to writer/director Greta Gerwig? It's not a flight of fantasy in the film, because Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to go by her given name—as in, the one she arbitrarily gave to herself—"Lady Bird," spends the rest of the semester with a bright, pink cast on her arm.
That's the funny thing about memory. Maybe it happened that way, or maybe the broken arm was completely unrelated to an argument with a mother. Perhaps it's just how a seemingly nonstop series of arguments can make one feel—as if jumping out of a moving car seems like the only rational move to make.
Does it matter if the incident is true to life? It doesn't, because it's true to this character. For all we know, Lady Bird could be Gerwig's exact duplicate, an expression of the way she felt at the time, or a distant memory of the person she used to be, filtered through the experiences of her life since then. Likely, Lady Bird is some combination of all of those things and, also just as likely, some things that are just plain fiction.
The truth is also a funny thing. It doesn't have to be founded upon strict reality to be true.
There's a lot of truth in Gerwig's film, which is her first solo effort as a director, and there's also a sense of searching for that truth, amidst the confusion and chaos of Lady Bird's final year at an all-girls Catholic high school. After returning from college visits with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), Lady Bird is even more concerned about the future. She wants to attend school on the East Coast, but all of the schools approved by her mother are located in the state of California, where Lady Bird has spent her entire life on "the wrong side of the tracks" in Sacramento.
With a goofy and oblivious grin on his face, her first boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges), a kid from a well-to-do family, tells Marion and Lady Bird's father Larry (Tracy Letts) that he thought the phrase was only a joke—until he passed over some railroad tracks on the way to their house. Gerwig doesn't end the scene there, with an easy punch line. The camera catches a glimpse of the faces of Lady Bird's parents, who look as if they've been shamed—by this nice-enough kid who doesn't know what he's really saying to them and, even more devastatingly, by their own daughter.
Gerwig doesn't simply make room for moments such as this one. The entire film makes us feel as if we're peeking into these lives (There's a pair of scenes involving a school priest, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, that shows the depth of Gerwig's affection for these characters). When the moment arrives, we can instinctually comprehend how that phrase—"the other side of the tracks"—will sting Marion and Larry, who have worked their entire lives to provide a decent-enough living for Lady Bird and her brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), as well as his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott), who moved into the family home after being kicked out by her own family.
As much as we may like and recognize Lady Bird for her openness and her rebelliousness, we can also tell that she's a bit of a jerk at times, whether she intends to be or not. Our willingness to embrace this messy character is helped immensely by Ronan, whose performance is filled with youthful exuberance and longing—all while charting the distinct path of the character's growth.
Lady Bird is open about her feelings, yes, but she doesn't know much about how her words and attitude can affect others. Meanwhile, her rebellion is a hollow one—looking to fit in and condemning a world that doesn't make her the center of attention. A few people point these qualities out to her in various ways throughout the film. Try to get a teenager to understand that there are other people who feel pain, anxiety, and uncertainty in the same ways as said teenager.
Getting Lady Bird to see these facts of life is the course of the story. It unfolds through her relationships with her family members—her mother, who feels unappreciated and doesn't communicate those feelings in a helpful way, and her father, who is too nice to tell his only daughter how he's feeling. It comes through her relationships with a pair of boyfriends—Danny, who breaks her heart and then needs his heart mended, and Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), who seems like a good fit but shows her the callous side of shallow rebellion. We see it through her interactions with two friends—Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who has her loyalty to Lady Bird rewarded by being tossed aside, and Jenna (Odeya Rush), who likes Lady Bird when she lies about being in the same socioeconomic class.
It's all about attention to detail in Lady Bird: the way a teenage girl scribbles the names of the boys she likes on her bedroom wall, the way a major fight between close friends is ended with a single hug, the way a single song can point you in the right direction, and the way a father, even in his most dejected moment, adjusts his son's sport coat and tie. As a wise nun at Lady Bird's school puts it, attention and love are one and the same.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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