Oh, the joys of being an Australian film fan. Getting to watch from afar as a film like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is released in American cinemas back in November, gathers up critical acclaim, Oscar nominations, and other awards, all while patiently waiting until mid-Feb for it to get wide release down under. It’s a relief to finally see it and realise that not only is Lady Bird not let down by the advance hype, but is an emotionally authentic film worth waiting for.
Set over the last year of high school for Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), Gerwig’s screenplay tackles many familiar topics of the coming-of-age drama. There’s the high and lows of high school relationships, the awkwardness of losing one’s virginity, arguments with parents who just don’t get it, the craving to have cooler friends, the inevitable high school prom, and throughout it all the constant desire to make your own name for yourself (literally in Lady Bird’s case). Films like Lady Bird remind us that the reason so many movies are able to revisit these moments is because even if we all experience these milestones differently, we can’t help but experience them. Despite having an entirely different background than Lady Bird herself I found myself revisiting my own memories of performing with the school theatre department, developing wildly passionate crushes on my classmates, and particularly all the times my careless actions had hurt my parents. Lady Bird’s complicated relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is at the heart of the film, with the two women too similar in the strength of their personalities to ever have a civil conversation for longer than five minutes. It’s a volatile and deeply passionate relationship that forms one of the most accurate depictions of the mother-daughter dynamic since Mike Nichols’ Postcards from the Edge.
Saoirse Ronan has been a phenomenon on screen since her breakthrough role in Atonement and she once again demonstrates a knack to lose herself in rounded complex characters. In lesser hands Lady Bird could have been a pretentious and unlikable protagonist, almost a parody of youth self-indulgence and righteousness, but Ronan and Gerwig present her best and worst qualities equally. Like all teenagers she’s insecure and vulnerable, with every emotion amplified and threatening to burst out. Through Metcalf’s performance I got the sense that Marion McPherson was once the same, but is now too proud to show how much she’s struggling to keep the family afloat financially after Lady Bird’s father loses his job. The arguments between the two are personal and devastating, but there’s a deep love underneath it all that makes Lady Bird emotional without being depressing. Tracy Letts’ understated performance as Larry McPherson helps, as he unobtrusively tries to bridge the relationship between the women in his life.
Located primarily within Sacramento in 2002, Lady Bird makes a powerful point towards the importance of setting within films. So much time is spent exploring the various ‘uncultured’ aspects of the town that frustrate Lady Bird that when we see brief scenes of New York towards the end it feels almost like a different country. Gerwig enhances this with minor details that help make Lady Bird’s world feel real and lived-in, such as when she steals and eats the communion wafers from her catholic school while gossiping with her best friend, or hangs out with the popular kids in the middle of a gravelled parking lot. Special mention must be made of April Napier’s costume design, as Lady Bird mixes various old and worn pieces of clothing purchased from thrift stores. It both expresses Lady Bird’s style and individuality while emphasising the financial strain burdening Marion, brilliantly evoking the personalities and motivations of both the film’s main characters.
Greta Gerwig demonstrated her ability to write believable people struggling to find their direction in life with her screenplays for Frances Ha and Mistress America, and with Lady Bird marking her first solo directing role she proves herself able to bring to life her stories as well as she writes them. It’s rare to find creators with voices as honest as hers, and it makes a film like Lady Bird feel like a gift I’m increasingly grateful to receive.