Lady Bird movie review

Credit: A24

There’s a scene at the end of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, in which we’re reminded of a clichéd film sequence involving an airport. You know the one. We’re only reminded of it, though, as the characters and situation are altered to create a fresh take on an otherwise tired film trope. However, just as we’re enjoying this change, the irresistible Gerwig switches it up yet again. It’s not the same scene or even a different take on it but something even better and more honest.

This is true for the film as a whole. Modern filmmakers have tried to put a fresh spin on typical stories of teenaged angst, often to great success. That’s the idea here, but unlike recent films, there’s no severe alteration to the premise or character with an overly unique or quirky persona. There’s no gimmickry or excess but a simple portrait of a family to whom countless viewers can relate and a breezy naturalism that helps the story transcend the genre. Perhaps, paradoxically, it’s the stripped-down, straightforward and ordinary nature of this film that makes it so complex.

On the surface, it’s a movie about a girl’s relationship with her family and friends, but it’s really a celebration of autonomy and liberation. Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (a wonderful Saoirse Ronan) is our heroine who feels trapped in her ordinary life. Lady Bird, who says that’s her given name because she gave it to herself, is a restless teen looking for more out of life than the corny teachers and activities an all-girl Catholic high school in Sacramento can provide. Minor rebellious actions like devouring communion wafers with her best friend, Julie (a playful Beanie Feldstein), or giving her shocking take on abortion at an assembly show us that she’s not really in her element. In fact, she yearns to be accepted by an east coast college.

Lady Bird isn’t a bad girl, though. She’s not really a good or bad anything. What makes her so appealing is how difficult it is to describe her. That’s the type of complexity Gerwig brings to these complicated characters. We know she’s restless and honest. Her grades are decent. She can be both awkward and assertive, sometimes in the same scene. She has a turbulent push-pull relationship with her nagging mother and becomes involved with some bad eggs at her school despite her true nature. I guess you can say she’s a pretty typical teenager. Yet, Ronan turns this normalcy into a thing of beauty and makes Lady Bird the embodiment of perseverance in subtle ways. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of her performance, however, is how she completely hides her incredibly thick Irish accent.

Lady Bird’s mother, Marion (an electric Laurie Metcalf) is the source of much of her frustration. She’s mastered the art of passive aggression and uses it readily on the verbal battlefield created by these two hot-headed personalities. A simple disagreement turns into a heated argument almost instantaneously with these two and no sooner does that argument end that we see them sharing a fond memory a scene later. Again, we’ve all been there. Marion can be pretty brutal, but she also has to work double shifts as a nurse to support an often ungrateful daughter and an unemployed husband (Tracy Letts) who suffers from depression. But we don’t really need to know that to empathize with her. Metcalf’s performance is too good for us not to feel her pain. It would be a complete shock to see her name omitted from the Best Supporting Actress category this winter.

As for Letts’ character, he’s one of the warmest father figures you’ll see on screen. It’s easier for him to be this way when he doesn’t have to juggle fifty things to keep the family afloat, but his good nature and strong connection with Lady Bird are intoxicating; he even helps Lady Bird apply to colleges despite Marion’s objections.

The movie is considered semi-autobiographical and it’s fitting that it should be about a normal girl trying to break down barriers. Gerwig has been an actress—a damn good one—for many years, often playing quirky characters in indie films. Now she’s a director and considering the quality of this movie and the reception she’s receiving, she’s on a path to greatness herself.

As a director, she has a gentle, pure, nostalgic touch and allows the story to breathe on its own with little contrivance. Her pacing is extraordinary; she keeps her scenes brief and her cuts quick, though there are a few times when the story might benefit from some lingering. A revelation about Lady Bird’s boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges on a roll), may have had a stronger impact had the movie not cut away so quickly. Then again, Gerwig revisits this plot point sometime later in an incredibly tender scene that’s handled exquisitely.

Fans that didn’t know that Gerwig also wrote the script may be able to tell based on her personality and some of the characters she’s played. Her unorthodox comedic sensibilities and unique observations color the entire screenplay to the point where certain characters feel like her surrogates. The movie’s dialogue is authentic, witty and forms organically, especially its searing arguments. It’s also shockingly hilarious in parts with subtle throwaway lines that don’t fully register at first until they produce belly laughter seconds later. This is a smart and insightful film that never becomes pretentious like similar fair.

Considering the big news about Lady Bird becoming the best-reviewed movie of all time on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s tempting to have this influence your opinion until you question what all the fuss is about. That’s understandable. True, if you’re looking for that one special moment of greatness that proves the movie is one of the best of all time, you may not find it. But it’s likely you won’t find any flaws either and we can all do a lot worse than a flawless film.

Rating: 4.5/5 Atoms

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