Lady Bird (2017)

“Don't you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”

It can't be denied that Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is something special—it’s not only a stunning debut, but it’s probably one of the only films in the coming-of age-genre to receive almost exclusively positive reviews; it had a Rotten Tomatoes score of a 100%, only bumped one notch down by one negative review.

Gerwig is probably best known as indie queen, the muse of director Noah Baumbach, in whose films she has often starred and with whom she has co-written screenplays. This is her first time venturing behind the camera, and there has been unanimous amazement at how well she’s done.

But anyone that has been following her career shouldn’t really be surprised. Gerwig has experience both behind and in front of the camera. In terms of script and visual style, Lady Bird might recall some of her work with Baumbach, but it’s clearly infused with Gerwig’s own vision.  

It’s also semi-autobiographical, depicting Gerwig’s teenage years in Sacramento, California before she became a New Yorker.

Technically, Lady Bird doesn’t do anything new. We’ve seen countless variations of the emotionally conflicted teenager preparing to set off to college and begrudgingly waiting until their senior year is over. But what makes Lady Bird special is that when watching, you can tell how personal the film is for Gerwig. It's a true passion project. She’s warm and sympathetic towards her characters but never forsakes realism. Some of them respond to clichés, but Gerwig never mocks.

Gerwig understands that all teenagers go through a phase in which they want to be someone else, at times even adopting a different persona. It’s all about finding out who you are and navigating your individuality, and Gerwig accepts that.

She seems to understand and trust that her characters will grow out of this phase; Gerwig, unlike some of her own characters, never judges. It’s this wanting to be someone else that also gives the film its title. It’s the main character who, after being asked whether “Lady Bird” is her given name, answers that yes, it was given to her by her.

Christine McPherson is a Sacramento native in her last year of high school. She’s looking into colleges with her mom. Christine claims to hate Sacramento and says that she wants to go study where the culture is, somewhere Like New York. Her mom would prefer that she go to a college in her own home state, informing her that they don’t have enough money and her grades aren’t good enough to get into the colleges that she wants. Lady Bird doesn’t even see that as an option.

Hence, she launches herself out of her mom’s moving car. The rest of the film explores the tumultuous relationship between her and her mother. The two have many sparring matches in which they both show a surprisingly mean side, but in the next moment, they'll bond over the perfect prom dress.

It’s details like that that make the film so realistic. It perfectly encapsulates and understands the intensity and frustration of mother-daughter relationships.

Lady Bird’s mother cares deeply for her daughter, but she sometimes expresses that concern and love somewhat harshly or doesn’t know how to communicate something sensitively. Lady Bird translates that as that her mother bringing her down and not believing in her.

I have a good relationship with my mother, but I recognized the moment with the prom dress. Sometimes, you fight because your mom wants to prevent you from making a bad decision, but you claim to know it all, so you resist and end up fighting until a minute detail distracts both parties.

In American culture, there is the cliche of being “from the wrong side of the tracks." In Lady Bird’s case, that’s literal. Her family’s loving and caring, but they are poor people. They want to offer their daughter the best they can and more, but can’t. That’s why her mother is so frustrated when she doesn’t treat her clothes with careit was a real effort for her to even buy them. She muses that some Lady Bird’s wealthier friends' fathers could employ her out-of-a-job father, but they won’t do that if his family looks like trash.

Lady Bird does recognize how much her family does and has done for her. But she wants more and longs to be somewhere else. She goes to a school where a lot of people are wealthier than her; they have nicer houses, so she feels ashamed and lies to the popular girl about where she lives.

Lady Bird is about Christine’s senior year and the experience of not being able to pursue something “because you’re not particularly strong at maths,” which is another thing I recognize. She wants to be an actress but is always offered mediocre parts in the school plays.

She makes all kind of mistakes, too. Amongst them is the classic move of ditching your best friend for someone more popular. She also falls for the wrong guys. One of them turns out to be gay and still in the closet.  Her first time having sex ends up being wholly disappointing, as the guy turns out to live up to his bad-boy image. (Timotheé Chalamet is as good as ever in surprisingly abrasive role).

He’s a gigantic cliche: an insensitive wannabe anarchist, claiming that he doesn’t really believe in money and barters instead. But as I mentioned, Gerwig never makes fun any of her characters, and that’s where her direction is triumphant: she’s sensitive and gentle. She respects and acknowledges her characters' flaws because they’re all human and are still figuring it out.

Lady Bird sometimes really can be mean. She can charm as easily as she can wound, and can be loving and judgmental and resentful, like all of us. Like any other teen, her impulses and emotions lead the way sometimes.

She’s not likely to grow up into an easy womanshe’s temperamental, opinionated, headstrong, and sticks to what she wants. As much as she can be endlessly frustrating, she’s also strong.

Her grades aren’t the best, but she does everything she can to get into her dream college and she does. She gets to go to her beloved New York. However, without her mom knowing it, she asked her dad for help with applying for financial aid. When this is revealed, it drives an almost irreparable wedge between the two.

Lady Bird has learned how to drive and takes her first drive around Sacramento, but because they’re fighting, her mom’s not there. When the McPherson family is at the airport before Lady Bird leaves for New York, her mom is still angry. She doesn’t go with her to drop her off, and when she changes her mind, her daughter is already on the plane.

The point is that we miss a lot of good moments when we're angry. Once in New York, Lady Bird reflects as she strolls alone through the city. When asked her name, she answers Christine. She seems ready to embrace who she is (or to at least start trying).

In a beautifully emotional scene at the end of the film, after someone tells her they don’t believe in God, Lady Bird ventures out into the city and steps into a church. As she listens to a choir, a tear of joy rolls down her cheek.

The film sees faith as something beautiful and meaningful and not backward or as something to be ashamed of. It becomes clear that Lady Bird secretly had more love for Sacramento than she would care to admit.

Once outside the church, she calls her mom and the two forgive each other and make peace. And so Lady Bird becomes a love story—not in the romantic sense. This movie is about loving who you are and where you’re from.

When Lady Bird steps outside of that church, she’s liberated. She can start completely new, surebut she doesn’t need to ditch the past and hide who she is because, as she now realizes, there is nothing to be ashamed about.

Gerwig has made an enchanting and emotional film. It is sensitive and sensible, but at times also laugh-out-loud funny. The director knows how to spot humor in ordinary situations. Her writing is realistic, honest, and sentimental without being sappy.

Lady Bird’s cast shines, tooor should I say soars? Saoirse Ronan does a brilliant job, making her Christine not always likable but never hateful, even when she acts childish or mean. Laurie Metcalf as her mother is also a stand-out performance. As audience members, we understand how much her mom loves her and how stressed and frustrated she is at the same time.

Lady Bird’s cinematography is simple and not exuberant, but it works for this film. We’re not treated to the traditional beautiful sights of California, and it’s perpetual sunshine. Instead, we experience it as Christine does. We see how she perceives where she lives, and we can understand her wanting to leave; everything is seen through the lens of routine.

The time period is excellently crafted, too. The film takes place between 2000 and 2003, so we see the aftershocks of 9/11 as well as the contemporary pop culture. (Plus, Lady Bird and her dad discuss Alanis Morisette’s "Ironic" in the car.)

She has the following dialogue with a nun at school:

Sister Sarah Joan: You clearly love Sacramento.
Lady Bird: I do?
Sister Sarah Joan: You write about Sacramento so affectionately and with such care.
Lady Bird: I was just describing it.
Sister Sarah Joan: Well, it comes across as love.
Lady Bird: Sure, I guess I pay attention.
Sister Sarah Joan: Don't you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?

It’s that affectionate attention to details that characterizes the whole film. Gerwig’s debut is nuanced and graceful; it's a bright start to Gerwig’s likely successful career as a director.

By Ayla Van Damme