Lady Bird (2017)

Directed by Greta Gerwig

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Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut and her first solo writing credit.  It’s a film very personal to her, set in her hometown and in the same year she would’ve been a senior in high school.  It’s a film that feels authentically hers, with shades of the same protagonist she played in Frances Ha (2013), a wonderful movie she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach.

Lady Bird aka Christine, the 17 year old protagonist (Saoirse Ronan) has a lot in common with Frances.  Both are from Sacramento, and both move to New York, following the same trajectory as Gerwig herself.

While Frances is a little more stuck in the clouds and Lady Bird a little more consciously rebellious, both share one thing in common: they try.  I think that’s the through line between both characters and within a lot of Gerwig’s own performances, though to be fair I think of Frances most immediately anything I think of Gerwig.  Like with any actor tied so closely to one character, I have a hard time separating the two.

Anyways, I suppose the point is just to say that Gerwig has put a lot of herself into this movie, even though she has said that she wasn’t much like Lady Bird at this stage in her life.  Maybe it’s just that Lady Bird is a character that draws more attention and drama to herself, something that would spice up a movie a more straight-laced character would.

There’s something about Lady Bird that feels like a ticking time bomb.  She’s willing to try just about anything, and she has so much to learn at the start of the film despite insisting that “the learning part of high school is over.”  Lady Bird is a character with convictions, impulse and subtle empathy.  This is a coming of age story, and by the end of Lady Bird, our hero demonstrates immense growth, fulfilling a lot of what her parents see in her and what we glimpse in passing early in the movie.

The story opens with a pleasant shot of Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), sleeping on a motel bed, face to face.  Then we see them at the tail end of a long road trip to visit instate schools, listening and crying to the end of The Grapes of Wrath.  The movie was originally to be titled ‘Mothers and Daughters,’ and this opening image sets up the connection between Marion and her daughter, even as much of the rest of the film shows the ways in which they are at each other’s throats.  As her father (Tracy Letts) says, they both have strong personalities.

Throughout the film Lady Bird experiments with life and with people.  She has brief flings with two boys, each of which fails for a different reason.  She ditches her best friend for one made to seem cooler but ultimately less interesting.  She works in secret with her father to help secure financial aid to send her to college on the east coast, against her mother’s wishes, and by the end she finds that none of it really matters.

I mean, it does matter to a degree.  She works through a couple relationships, makes up with her best friend, gets into a New York school, and everything works out well.  In the end, though, she expresses nostalgia for her hometown, finally accepting her own story, where she’s come from and who she is.  It’s a type of self-acceptance very common to this type of coming of age story but which is never out of style.

There’s always something so appealing and comforting about these movies.  They typically follow young, misdirected characters on some quest at the end of which they learn to accept themselves and the people around them.  You have to embrace your origins, I suppose, to have any chance going forward.  Characters like Lady Bird grow up just a little bit, and they begin to validate their own existence.  It’s not about wanting to be somewhere else, do something else or even be someone else.  It’s about being whoever you are.

Maybe that’s cheesy, hell it probably is, but it’s something we all need to here once in a while.  It’s a reminder of all those special moments in our own lives, the ones shared with others or only with oneself.  This movie evokes many of the same emotions as something like Boyhood or, for me, 2016’s 20th Century Women.  They are all great movies, tugging on the same heartstrings.  It’s why a movie like Lady Bird has such mass appeal, because everyone sees themselves in her journey.

What’s so magnificent about Lady Bird, as well, is the time it dedicates to the supporting characters.  This is her story, but those other people are more than just cameos in her life.  The most important of these supporting characters is her mother, but her father, her best friend, her first boyfriend, her brother, her brother’s girlfriend and even a depressed priest get their moment.  So much is said in so little, and all of these characters feel three-dimensional.  They are only passing through Lady Bird’s life, but you can quickly tell that they are all on their own journey through which Lady Bird herself is only a supporting character.

Lady Bird realizes she’s not the center of the world, but she remains the center of her own world, in a good way.  She re-centers herself by focusing on those around her and finding strength in various shared experiences as well as ones on her own.  In a scene near the end of the film she expresses pride in another character, one who might come and go as a one-note joke in another film, and this demonstration of pride is a demonstration of selflessness, of caring about another individual.  It’s a heartwarming moment, and one of many examples of the story’s heart.

This is a movie which falls within a familiar genre but which manages to both subvert and live up to the genre’s expectations.  Some moments surprise us, particularly at the beginning and end, and other moments feel more conventional but in an effectively crowd-pleasing way.  You’re more likely to forgive the story when it veers into somewhat cliche territory if only because it does it so damn well.

Up Next: Lonely Are the Brave (1962), Darkest Hour (2017), The Stranger (1946)

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