A friendly reminder that being a teen sucks
Greta Gerwig may not be the most instantly recognizable name to many film audiences, but she has slowly been making a name for herself over the past few years. Between co-writing and co-staring in a few films like Mistress America and giving a solid performance in 20th Century Women, the young actress and filmmaker has been showing a wide variety of talents in the arenas of comedy and drama that many indie film lovers have been excited to see what she does next. Today she comes with her first directed film in about a decade that was apparently semi-autobiographical for Gerwig and is getting a ton of awards buzz as well. So let’s dive into her take on teenage life in a Catholic high school, Lady Bird.
Saoirse Ronan plays the titular Lady Bird, a headstrong teenage girl entering her final year in a Catholic high school. She has a tumultuous relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), half the time bickering with her furiously and the other half bonding normally. Additionally, Lady Bird is close friends with Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and the pair decide to join the school’s theater group. There, Lady Bird meets and falls hopelessly in love with an earnest nice boy, Danny (Lucas Hedges), and through him also becomes attracted to a mopey edgelord musician named Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). And as Lady Bird goes about her final year of high school, she becomes hellbent on leaving her home in Sacramento for a “cultured” life on the East Coast.
If my plot synopsis sounds a bit disjointed, it’s because the film functions as one of those “slice-of-life” pieces that I tend to have difficulty attaching myself to. Granted, the film does have the benefit of utilizing Lady Bird’s senior year as a convenient device to form a basic narrative backbone that lets me get my bearings straight. But unlike The Florida Project, Lady Bird also has a very intriguing main character who is entertaining to watch. Not because she is a good-natured girl, but because she is a complicated bag of conflicting emotions with shifting desires as she makes the jump between teenager and adulthood. Lady Bird has my favorite qualities in a protagonist, that is to say: she’s flawed as all hell.
Her strained relationship with her mother in particular is where said flaws come front and center. The pair’s scenes are really the highlights of the movie, as each woman display moments of vulnerability and peaks of absolute awkwardness. These two women say some frankly fucked-up insults to each other, that I was literally shoving my head beneath my shirt for how much cringe I experienced. But in a good way like The Big Sick, because I was genuinely becoming attached to this cast of characters as they were all fully-fleshed out and multi-dimensional in all the ways I appreciate in movies of this ilk. And because I cared so much about them, I felt just as awkward as each of the characters witnessing shit hitting the fan between Lady Bird and her mom.
Now, the interplay between these characters truly works because of the tag team efforts of Gerwig, Ronan and Metcalf each performing their duties marvelously. Gerwig has displayed here her finest written work after the pretty solid Mistress America, so much so that I will consider it a genuine “snub” if her script is NOT nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the Oscars. Considering how great this year has been for such scripts, it’s an even bigger accomplishment that Gerwig’s stands out. On top of that, Gerwig also demonstrates some fine directorial chops as well. Between solid compositions for her frames and getting the best possible performances from even smaller roles, Gerwig makes her movie feel as “real” as possible.
The director especially made sure Saoirse Ronan was able to make you feel attachment to the character of Lady Bird. Ronan has come a long way from her days in strange films like The Lovely Bones and Hanna; but even in weaker films like Brooklyn, she demonstrated a knack for breathing life into believable characters. With Gerwig’s solid script at her disposal, Ronan pulled out all the stops to become Lady Bird completely. From her laughs to her cries to her screams, Ronan becomes a completely different person in her role that I wouldn’t be surprised if she starts appearing Best Actress shortlists.
Additionally, Metcalf’s role as Lady Bird’s mother is also note worthy for how much pathos she infused into the character. As headstrong as our main character, Metcalf helps her younger co-star deliver some painfully explosive moments as well as tender experiences that feel all too real. She too also deserves a ton of praise in the support role for this piece, that she too can easily be another contender at this year’s Oscars.
If I have a criticism of the film at all, is that the first act felt bit scatter shot to me. Once again, that could be my own prejudice against “slice-of-life” filmmaking; but once Lady Bird starts flirting with Danny, the film proper begins and I was completely hooked on the fate of the various cast members. Of note was Lady Bird’s father (Tracy Letts) who takes on the role of a mediator between his daughter and his wife, despite the fact he too is going through some major personal issues that manifest themselves in surprising ways. Further, the character of Lady Bird’s BFF Julie also gave many a heart-tugging moments as well, even though she doesn’t have as much screen time as the star of the piece.
Like I said, everyone from director on down was doing such a solid job that my own quibbles are mere flicks at an otherwise solid presentation. Much like Last Flag Flying, I felt attached to these characters to such a strong degree that I wanted to keep following them even after the credits rolled. Even then, Lady Bird moves at a brisk 96 minutes so the film never outstays its welcome and cuts all the fat from its piece to give you an entertaining family dramedy. As I mentioned yesterday, the top ten is very crowded this year, so I’m not sure if this film will make the cut, but it’s nonetheless a strong…