Greta Gerwig's brilliant directorial debut stars Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf
Christine may be the name she was given at birth, but "Lady Bird", as she's taken to referring to herself, wouldn't be caught dead using it. Like many things in Lady Bird's life - her hometown of Sacramento, the family she was born into and its financial woes, the classmates that make up her student/social life - her name is nothing more than a preconception she arbitrarily inherited at birth. By adopting a name of her own choosing, Lady Bird asserts her independence and individuality. People expect big things from Christine, yet all that is required of Lady Bird is to be herself.
To describe the plot of Greta Gerwig's writer/directorial debut is to describe the basic premise of so many coming of age films of varying quality, aside from the scenery. In terms of specifics, the high school that Lady Bird attends is a Sacred Heart Catholic School, the era is the immediate years following 9/11, which makes the prospect of escaping to a college in New York more realistic than her grades deserve, and while she technically lives in California, as Gerwig said of her hometown at The New York Film Festival's press conference, "Sacramento is the Midwest of California". But these environmental settings tend to play second fiddle to the overarching themes of teenage angst, confusion, and general growing pains that make these works rise above the specifics to universality.
What separates Lady Bird from other exemplary entries into the beloved genre, besides its superficial differences, is the personality and layered nuance that Gerwig offers her craft, allowing for an experience that feels fresh in the face of every cliché it transcends. This is achieved through Gerwig's tonally authentic screenplay that breathes multi-faceted life into, not only her film's growing hero, but all of the friends and family that cohabitate her world.
This would, of course, be an impossible accomplishment without the impeccable performances of Lady Bird's wonderful cast. First and foremost, the title role falls on the capable shoulders of Saoirse Ronan, who shines in a way that Gerwig herself did when portraying Frances Halladay in the film she co-authored with Noah Baumbach - also named after its Gerwig-esque protagonist’s endearing sort-of nickname. Lady Bird’s supporting cast does far more than support Ronin. Laurie Metcalf, who plays Lady's mother, and one who is very reluctant to indulge the colors of her daughter's evolving personality, for example, offers one of the year's richest performances. And while it’s a mother-daughter story that drives the narrative, it’s a spotless ensemble that builds the film’s community of characters that constantly provide moments of heartbreaking truisms; souls of all ages doing their best to navigate growing up at all junctures of life.
I mentioned earlier that the era of a coming-of-age film is, more than anything else, an incidental environmental backdrop, but as epochs go, I can't deny how satisfying it is to see my own underused zeitgeist explored with such love and care. Perhaps this is where the coming-of-age bias kicks in, where those who lived through a particular time feel especially, or specifically, engaged. Without derailing this discussion too much into my frustration with being grouped in with the millennial generation, Gerwig, born in 1983 (one year prior to my own entrance), honestly and insightfully depicts the last generation, whose upbringing can be told without showing a single screen.
Yes, the Internet existed, but like Lady Bird, me and most teens I knew lived in one-computer households. The ‘Net was still deep in the background and colored few people’s perceptions of the burgeoning invasion of Iraq, for example, which primarily and surreally existed on television. Cell Phones existed, but the most impressive thing about them was that they were finally small enough to fit in a consumer’s pocket. To own one in grade 12 was a privilege, not a birthright, and the most convenient form of reaching a friend was still to just go to their house, routinely unannounced.
I can’t say for sure whether audience members of this film who didn’t grow under these very specific circumstances will be able to fully appreciate the significance of things like admitting that, despite the overwhelming pressures of teenage coolness, you actually like the Dave Matthews Band song, Crash Into Me, but I can say that those who recognize versions of themselves on the screen in Lady Bird will be grateful to be represented by an auteur with such an astute and funny method of illustrating the meaning behind our reference points as they applied to us a long time ago.
Like the best coming-of-age films, in Lady Bird, what is far more essential than relating to the references is understanding that they do not exist for the sake of throwbacking - the language of so many nostalgia cash cows these days. Lady Bird operates in a retrospect that grows aware of itself, whereby the things that end up holding the most significance are the ones we never dreamed we’d be thinking about after the fact. Through her profoundly comic grammar, Gerwig shows us how the era we’re arbitrarily birthed into, like the family and class that we’re powerless to prevent preceding us, are not things a person can run from; a person is these things. Consequently, Lady Bird wistfully reconciles societal-expectation with self-expectation as a timeless right of passage.
Nostalgia isn’t limited to surrounding cultural artifacts in specific, but every single feeling one encounters along the way, even - or often especially - the painful ones. The brilliance of Lady Bird lies in its bittersweet telling of the tribulations required to earn perspective on one’s own identity and emerge anew. That Gerwig is able to present Christine with such a warmly heavy heart and half-smirking sigh makes Lady Bird the stuff of which favorite films are made.