‘Lady Bird’ flies with humor and universal, high school truths
Written and directed by: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Jordan Rodrigues, and Beanie Feldstein
“Lady Bird” – “None of the things that happen in the movie literally happened to me, but they all rhyme with the truth.” – Greta Gerwig, 2017 New York Film Festival
On the surface, Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” – in which she wrote and directed - does appear autobiographical. Both her and her lead character, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), grew/grow up in Sacramento, attended/attend a Catholic high school and dreamed/dream of getting into college on the East Coast, but as Gerwig says, this film is not her life story.
Still, when watching Ronan play Lady Bird - whose God-given name is Christine – she seems to channel her inner-Greta Gerwig, complete with the writer/director’s on-screen trademarks. Lady Bird carries a quick wit, a distinct, matter-of-fact assuredness of the obscure and a prideful and purposeful outsider’s point of view. Observing high school’s absurdities with figurative crossed arms fuels Lady Bird, but she wades in the adolescent think tank just enough to be relatively accepted by its populace, but still deemed “weird” by the popular kids.
Not only does Ronan capture Gerwig’s likable attributes and preaches her words from the screenplay, but she delivers her lines and carries her mannerisms like a devout student of “Damsels in Distress” (2011), “Frances Ha” (2012) and “Mistress America” (2015). Ronan strolls through this non-autobiographical film with an effortless, breezy ease, like she was born to play this role, even if she is actually five years older than the average high school senior.
The picture runs through Lady Bird’s senior year, and along with identifying markers on the calendar – like Thanksgiving, Christmas and St. Patrick’s Day – she delves into hilarious anecdotes and universal moments of dating, theatre groups, school assemblies, and guidance counselor appointments. These collection of moments do feel familiar with other films, because how many different ways can one slice high school?
Then again, Lady Bird certainly can charm a movie audience. Not despite her faults, but because of them. She surely does not have all the answers, because yes, her poised persona is wonderfully mixed with her inexperience. Thankfully, she can medicate with a seminal Dave Matthews song with her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and these two share an engaging, authentic relationship that is not afraid to flash its occasional warts. Almost every, on-location moment with her fellow students and school faculty captures our attention with rich, clever dialogue but admittedly, does not break new ground. We’ve seen these stories before.
On the other hand, the narrative does feel different than most high school movies, because the script features Lady Bird’s parents – Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and Larry (Tracy Letts) – as prominent characters. In many high school pictures, filmmakers treat parents like out of touch buffoons (e.g. “Better Off Dead…” (1985) and “The Edge of Seventeen” (2016)). Other times, parental figures play meaningful but very, very supporting roles (e.g. “Sixteen Candles” (1984) and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower” (2012)).
Here, the Marion/Lady Bird dynamic is integral to the story. While Lady Bird tries to navigate around her school year potholes, she also attempts to dodge her mother’s constant criticism. Gerwig perfectly casted Metcalf, as she brings an everywoman’s quality to Marion, and this actress knows how to portray a character with decades of emotional baggage. Marion is the type of mom who wants the best for her kids – Lady Bird and Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) - but her nitpicking, fault-finding methods do not exactly bloom self-esteem. Since Lady Bird is Marion’s lone daughter, mom’s daily verbal disapprovals ride on a wide-open, one-way freeway towards this redheaded (with rebellious tinges of pink and purple locks) teen.
Although, Marion is not the Wicked Witch of the West. Far from it. She is a flawed, overworked woman, stifled by some unknown broken dreams, and through it all, delivers moments of care and love. Marion truly loves her family, including Lady Bird, but the mixed messages can be confusing to a high school senior, and her naiveté is expressed through casual, conflicting comments of “my mom hates me” and “my mom loves me” during the picture.
She has no doubt where her dad stands, as Larry always expresses unconditional love and support for Lady Bird through a soft-spoken voice. Letts – a late blooming rising star on the indie circuit – delivers in every scene, and Lady Bird appreciates her dad’s encouragement, but it is always countered by her mom’s less sympathetic persona.
The words coming from Sister Sarah Joan’s (Lois Smith) voice – during a conversation with Lady Bird – probably sum up this particular mother/daughter relationship, and her astute thought (which will not be repeated in this review) could apply to anyone or anything, including the city of Sacramento itself. Okay, Gerwig’s film may not be her autobiography, but “Lady Bird” will certainly “rhyme with the truth” for many, many others.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008 and graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.