Greta Gerwig is an accomplished actor and screenwriter, having appeared in 25 films and co-written five. 'Lady Bird,' which she also scripted, is her first feature as solo director. It is delightful.
I watched it three times, scribbling in the dark to capture just a fraction of its brilliant and often very funny dialogue. Set in Sacramento between autumn 2002 and 2003, it tells a fairly conventional coming-of-age story about a young woman – but in a way that lends the genre a freshness that is thrilling. Gerwig, like the film's protagonist, 17-year-old Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), grew up in the same Californian town, attended a Catholic high school, and went to college in New York.
Christine claims Lady Bird as her given name: 'It's given to me by me.' She sighs, 'the only exciting thing about 2002 is that it's a palindrome.' In her final year at school, Lady Bird is desperate to reinvent herself by moving to college on the east coast 'where culture is' – if not in New York 'then in Connecticut or New Hampshire where writers live in the woods.'
This aspiration is one of many bones of contention, the most pressing, between Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a psychiatric nurse who works long hours, does most of the housework and is frank about the family's fragile financial state. They can scarcely afford to send her to state school, never mind to a smart east coast college. 'You'll never get into them anyway,' says Marion, in a bad-tempered exchange following a moment of harmony sobbing together over the final lines of an audiotape of 'The Grapes of Wrath' on the car radio: 'You know what? You should just go to City College… and then to jail and… '
At this, Lady Bird, in extreme frustration, opens the passenger door and throws herself out of the moving car. It is a very funny moment and it occurs in the opening scene, deftly setting up the tempestuous, conflicted dynamic of the film that will lead to the film's powerful ending and resolution. Lady Bird, who sports a pink plaster cast on her arm for much of the film, asks her affable father Larry (Tracy Letts) to help her fill in a financial aid application. 'Don't tell mum.' When the secret gets out it creates a seemingly unbridgeable rift between mother and daughter. Money and social distinction inflect all of the film's relationships.
There's Lady Bird's cuddly best friend Julie who lives in a small flat with her single mum. In one lovely scene they lie on the grass, filmed upside down, eating wafers filched from church. 'You're not supposed to eat the wafers,' says Julie, giggling. 'But they're not consecrated,' shoots back her friend. The pair fall out when Lady Bird cultivates friendship with rich girl Jenna by pretending to be rich herself. Then there is Lady Bird's budding, doomed romance with Danny (Lucas Hedges) whose grandmother lives in her 'favourite house in all Sacramento.' He invites her to his family's Thanksgiving meal. When she turns up at the grand house she spots a picture of Ronald Reagan and asks, 'Is this a joke?' No, Danny replies.
Lady Bird's first experience of going all the way ('I like dry humping better,' she admits, later) is with pretentious new boyfriend rock singer Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) who 'hates money' but is born to privilege and attends a prestigious private school. His response to Lady Bird's dismay on learning that this is not his first time is to quote the number of people killed in Vietnam. She murmurs, 'Different things can be sad. It's not all war.' Crying on her mum's shoulder later, Marion offers, 'Want to do our favourite Sunday afternoon activity?' Cut to smart room in a house for sale, clutching brochures.
Few films focus on mothers and daughters; even fewer have bold, self-confident young women as their central characters. In one lovely scene between Lady Bird and the school's principal, Sister Sarah (Lois Smith), the principal tells her she knows it was Lady Bird who put 'Just Married' balloons and stickers on her car, adding, 'I didn't mind. It was funny.' Lady Bird is again surprised when told, 'I read your [college application] essay. It's clear how much you love Sacramento.' By now we know of Lady Bird's desperation to escape her hometown. 'But I was just describing it,' she says. 'Well it came across as love' says her teacher. 'I guess I pay attention,' says Lady Bird. 'Don’t you think maybe they're the same thing, love and attention?' the wise nun ventures.
Such exchanges are typical of 'Lady Bird,' a film that is visually restrained but full of little insights, riffs and digressions that, if closely attended to, enrich the main storyline and characters. Most shots are cleanly framed and still, so that attention focuses on the actors and dialogue. Language matters above all. The script is carefully crafted, beautifully matching the quick rhythm and movement between scenes.
Much of the humour comes from how characters respond to and play off one another. For example, when Lady Bird passes her driving test (an experience she uses to heal the breach with her mother after leaving home) she effusively thanks her examiner. 'It's not a thanking situation,' he says. 'You either pass or you don't.'
Girls in film are frequently there to be looked at or to help the male protagonist fulfill his destiny. Here, Lady Bird is the one who develops and looks – at boys, clothes, books, Sacramento (driving independently at last, seeing familiar streets as if for the first time), houses, magazines (on her 18th birthday, buying 'Playgirl' just because she can). Generous and self-absorbed, Lady Bird wants her mother to approve of her and to like her, but she also wants to be true to herself and her own desires. 'I just want you to be the best version of yourself that you can be,' says her constantly (it seems to her) disappointed mother. 'But what if this is the best version?' Lady Bird responds.
Nothing terrible happens in 'Lady Bird'; people are generally decent to one another and doing their best. Conflicts are resolved – as when Lady Bird ditches Kyle to drag Julie to the prom where they have a ball. Metcalf as Marion anchors the entire film. She is neither saint nor witch but is warm and loving – just unable to express this to her daughter.
One telling scene shows her at the sewing machine altering a dress that Lady Bird will wear at the Thanksgiving dinner at Danny's grandmother's posh house. Hurt that her daughter isn't spending Thanksgiving at home, she is nonetheless helping her by shopping at the charity shop for the dress and now altering it after her double shift at the hospital. The scene is brief, framed in dim lighting and focused on Metcalfe looking tired and drawn, the only sound the thrum of the needle. Lady Bird will put on the dress, taking for granted that it now fits, but we the audience have witnessed the attention Marion applied to it late at night, altering just slightly her daughter's prospects.
This scene is Gerwig's homage to influential Belgian film director Chantal Akerman whom she admired and who died just over a year ago. Akerman thought it important to show images of housework on film: her hypnotic 1975 feature, 'Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quaie du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles' consists mainly of shots of a woman doing repeated household chores. Akerman never won an Oscar.
'Lady Bird' had success at the Golden Globes in January but Gerwig was not on the best director shortlist. This year's Oscar nominations have just been announced. 'Lady Bird' is shortlisted for best picture, as are its stars Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe for their brilliant performances. Gerwig is nominated for 'best original screenplay' and 'achievement in directing,' making her the fifth woman ever to be shortlisted in the best director category in the Academy Awards' 90-year history. If she wins on 4 March she will be the second woman to receive the award (Kathryn Bigelow being the first, in 2010, for 'The Hurt Locker'). Now, that would be something.
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