Critics are raving about LADY BIRD (2017), the new comedy-drama by first-time director Greta Gerwig.
Now, I’m a fan of Gerwig’s work as an actor, and so I was looking forward to her first film behind the camera.
LADY BIRD tells the story of high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who is hell-bent on getting out of her hometown of Sacramento, California. She wants to attend college on the east coast, which is no easy task since her dad just lost his job, and her family is really struggling with money. She goes by the name “Lady Bird” because she says she thinks it’s crazy to accept a name given her by her parents before she was born. Yep, you can see right away that Lady Bird is an intense young woman.
She gets along well with her father Larry (Tracy Letts) but not so much with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Marion is a nurse, and with her husband out of a job, it’s up to her to support the family, which includes Lady Bird’s older brother and his live-in girlfriend, who’s been taken in by Lady Bird’s parents.
Marion and Lady Bird butt heads constantly, and Marion can’t seem to talk to her daughter without criticizing her. We learn why when Marion says her own mother was an abusive alcoholic, the implication to Lady Bird being that her woes are nothing in comparison. There is also a shadow hanging over the family, as Lady Bird attends an all-girls Catholic School, and most of her friends there come from wealthy families. The stigma that Lady Bird and her family feel about living in relative poverty is nearly palpable.
When she’s not fighting with her mother, Lady Bird is attending school and becoming involved with boys, all the while doing everything she can during her senior year to get accepted to an east coast school, which is a challenge for her not only because of her parents’ lack of money but also because of her own mediocre grades.
LADY BIRD is a largely autobiographical tale. Writer/director Greta Gerwig also grew up in Sacramento, attended an all-girls Catholic school, and her own mom was also a nurse. Gerwig definitely knows this material and is deftly able to tell this story, which is the best part about LADY BIRD, the honest fresh way it relays its narrative.
There are some truly remarkable scenes in this movie, including one of the more honest scenes dealing with a first sexual experience I’ve ever seen. There are also some poignant moments between Lady Bird and her first boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges), especially one moment in particular when he reacts to a realization about himself.
The scenes between Lady Bird and her mother are painfully uncomfortable to watch, mostly because her mother is so relentless, and yet we know that aside from her relationship with her daughter, she is a very good person. She was quick to take in her son’s girlfriend when her own family disowned her.
The other strength of this movie is Gerwig gets the most out of her actors. There are some very strong performances here.
To me, Laurie Metcalf steals the movie as Lady Bird’s bitter mother Marion. It’s a supporting performance, as this is really Lady Bird’s story, but whenever Metcalf is on-screen, the tension between mother and daughter is agonizing.
Tracy Letts is also very good as Lady Bird’s father Larry. To Lady Bird, he’s the strong sensible member of the family, the person she leans on, and so she is completely surprised to learn that he has been struggling with depression for years. The scene where he interviews for a job, and he’s interviewed by a much younger man, and it’s clear that the man isn’t taking him seriously, is brutally honest and sad.
Lucas Hedges does a fine job as Lady Bird’s first boyfriend Danny. While not as impressive as his work in MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016) he does deliver a sensitive performance. I also enjoyed Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, and Odeya Rush as Jenna, the wealthy popular girl who Lady Bird later befriends when she tries to move into a new crowd.
Timothee Chalamet does a nice job playing the cool, offbeat teen musician Kyle who Lady Bird later falls for. Their relationship runs the full gamut from infatuation to disillusionment, at least from Lady Bird’s point of view. Kyle remains coolly distant throughout, something Lady Bird at first finds attractive until she realizes that is how he is all the time.
Two other memorable performances include Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan, whose opinions often surprise Lady Bird, and Stephen Henderson as Father Leviatch, who runs the drama department.
In the lead role as Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan is completely convincing as the strong-willed high school senior. She makes Lady Bird a force to be reckoned with, even when she’s vulnerable.
That being said, I really struggled to like Lady Bird. There was something off-putting about her, something I simply couldn’t rally around. I enjoyed her personality, enjoyed going along for the ride during her high school misadventures and her plight to get accepted to college, and her fights with her mom, but I never felt all that invested in any of it. I never warmed up to her character.
The scenes between Lady Bird and her mother remain nearly unbearable to watch throughout, and I suppose that’s the point, that there are no happy endings with this kind of relationship. And while we see proof separately that they indeed love and care for each other, we never see it when they’re together.
There are some moments that work in terms of generating emotion. The scenes between Lady Bird and her father, especially when he works behind the scenes to get her financial aid for college, are noteworthy. Likewise, the scenes between Lady Bird and Danny have some emotional resonance.
But most of the emotion here is reserved for scenes between Lady Bird and her mother, and those scenes are difficult to endure.
LADY BIRD is marketed as a comedy-drama, and it is, but the emphasis is more on drama. The comedy isn’t at all laugh-out-loud funny and works more on the level of when-things-are-awkward they are humorous, which is often true.
LADY BIRD is certainly a successful debut for first time writer/director Greta Gerwig. She succeeds in creating three-dimensional characters and tells an honest, quirky and oftentimes uncomfortable story about a young woman’s senior year of high school, with heavy emphasis on the strained relationship between the girl and her mother.
While I would have preferred a lighter more humorous tone, I can’t deny that the strength of this movie is the truthful way it is told.
It’s just that as most of us know, the truth often hurts.