Movie Review: 'Lady Bird'

Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts
Rated R
94 minutes

“Lady Bird” is a movie for anyone who feels that they were not the best version of themselves when they were in high school. Which is to say, “Lady Bird” is a movie for everyone. Greta Gerwig (“Frances Ha”), directing her first film, delves into the part of life that most of us would prefer to forget about, but rather than dwell on the embarrassment of puberty or the shame yielded by the things we do and say before we’re mature enough to know better, Gerwig looks back with a forgiving eye. While the movie’s storyline focuses largely on family betrayals and fights, Gerwig ultimately draws our attention to the love that remains even at the most strained of times, making this one of the most touching films about family to come out in recent memory.

Saoirse Ronan (left) and Laurie Metcalf star in “Lady Bird.” (Courtesy photo)

That storyline is itself something of a novelty, in that it’s less a plot and more a chronology, in which the self-nicknamed Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn”), a high school senior in Sacramento, goes through the growing pains of dating, applying to college, and arguing with her mom (Laurie Metcalf, TV’s “Roseanne”). She meets a boy in theater auditions, Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea”), whom she dates until she discovers his big secret; her father (Tracy Letts, “The Big Short”) loses his job, so money is tight at home; she meets another boy, makes new friends, fights with her mother, and so on. And while the movie is full of tense moments, they don’t build to any one climactic reckoning; Gerwig centers the story on the connections and disconnections between characters, rather than their explicit successes and failures, resulting in a complex portrait of young adulthood, one that breathes and feels alive.

Saoirse Ronan and Lucas Hedges in a scene from “Lady Bird.” (Courtesy photo)

That’s not to say the movie is without its flaws. Most prominently, Gerwig’s script has occasional inconsistencies in tone, which the movie’s commitment to understatement elsewhere only amplifies. Consider the final scene of the film, an emotionally flat and stylistically tiresome monologue (over the phone, no less) that tries to tie a neat bow onto a film that neither needed nor deserved one. Or consider the scene in which Lady Bird pleads with her mother to stop giving her the silent treatment, a scene that belongs in one of those books of theater monologues that nobody buys. And littler things are sometimes off-key too, like the high school coach who doubles up as the theater director, a distracting caricature amid a sea of better-developed characters.

Luckily, even if the script lags in places, the performances never do. Saoirse Ronan skillfully handles the self-contradictions that define Lady Bird: defiant but eager to be liked, self-sufficient but dependent, yearning for a more exotic life but nevertheless attached to Sacramento. Laurie Metcalf is Ronan’s perfect counterpart, a ceaselessly nagging but protective presence, and with the exception of the scene mentioned above, every moment the two actresses share is honest and resonant. More than anything else, this is a movie about a girl and her mother learning to come to terms with each other; this is film as apology, a look back at harder times from a place of greater peace.

What makes this movie special, and so much more profound than just the story of a mother-daughter relationship, is the depth and respect with which it treats every subplot and minor character. Danny, Lady Bird’s father, the rich girl in Lady Bird’s class, Lady Bird’s brother’s girlfriend, the nun at school, even Sacramento—they’re all ultimately signposts along Lady Bird’s personal journey, but Gerwig isn’t content to let them be props. What Gerwig accomplishes, and in an impressively short running time, is the feat of making every character feel like the protagonist of their own story, even if this particular story belongs to Lady Bird.

In that sense, “Lady Bird” is quintessentially adolescent, a film about learning to gain perspective even while we’re still unaware that so much is going on outside our personal bubbles. Watching this movie, one imagines there’s an equally profound exploration of life lying in wait within any of the other characters here. We can only hope that Greta Gerwig tells us more of these stories that are living in her.

  Danny Eisenberg, a Bromfield graduate,
lives and works in Denver, Colorado.

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