Lady Bird is more than a time capsule. Writer-director Greta Gerwig plumbed her own Sacramento adolescence for a work of fiction that’s self-reflective but rarely precious. She renders the inextricable pain and joy of family, home and growing up in careful strokes.
Gerwig’s proxy is Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a spunky senior at a Catholic high school in 2002 with a faded red dye job and a difficult relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). As the first scene of the film illustrates, their interactions turn from caring to confrontational in an instant. They shed tears listening to The Grapes of Wrath on tape while driving through “the Midwest of California” (as Lady Bird calls the capital city), but their subsequent bickering escalates so rapidly that the teen jumps out of her mother’s car.
The film’s preface is a quote from American writer Joan Didion, who shares a hometown with Gerwig: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” It’s a melancholy joke. Didion was born rich; Lady Bird’s family is working class, and her mother works overtime as a psychiatric hospital nurse to fill the gaps after her father (an affecting Tracy Letts) loses his job. Lady Bird wants to fly to a New York liberal arts college but she lacks the cash and grades. And at one point, Marion asks her daughter if she wants to do their favorite Sunday activity: visiting mansions for sale as pretend buyers. Gerwig intimately understands how class entrenches our worldview, but she allows moments like this to speak for themselves without preaching.
In her lauded nonfiction collection Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Didion writes of “atomization,” the notion that the nation and its communities are fissuring like the nuclear bomb. Lady Bird’s family may not experience Didion’s excesses, but the film radiates with a quiet chaos that the icy writer would recognize. This is a Sacramento of distressed mothers and depressed fathers, of friendships strained by aspirations, the golden land in the shadow of trauma. Gerwig uses comedy to explore the ravages of Catholic guilt and emotional neglect with remarkable deftness.
Sporting a pink cast on her broken wrist, Lady Bird navigates familiar coming-of-age rituals of college applications, romantic snags and greeting authority with irreverence. Lady Bird at times looks as affably lost as the 20-something leads Gerwig co-wrote for herself in Frances Ha and Mistress America, yet Ronan grounds the teenaged role firmly in her own choices. She spits insults like an aspiring sailor and screams with youthful zeal on the walk home from her first kiss.
I felt pangs of recognition around Marion, who Laurie Metcalf plays with steely grace. She’s an insatiably critical parent who passes off derision as honesty, and when Lady Bird asks her mother if she even likes her, Marion can’t answer. It’s a testament to her intensity that one of the most upsetting scenes finds Marion giving her daughter the cold shoulder during a pivotal argument. Jon Brion’s discordant music rises above Lady Bird’s shrieks for an answer, emphasizing her pure desperation.
During another fight, Marion suggests her daughter has no idea what it took to raise her. The plucky teen grabs a notebook and says, “Give me a number.” Her voice pained, she promises that once she’s made her money she’ll write a check for every dime Marion spent for her benefit. That exchange stung me like nothing else in the film. It was heartbreaking to see Lady Bird feel reduced to an expense in a damn checkbook.
Metcalf and Ronan are so well-matched that it’s almost uncomfortable. This mother and daughter are more alike than they’d care to admit (they even have similar haircuts), and the two leads expertly convey a shared stubbornness and empathy. A late sequence uses match cuts and mirrored compositions to signal their closeness and reconciliation.
Free of precocious affectations and unsubtle irony, the film’s high schoolers behave like human beings that might have actually walked the earth in the aughts. Gerwig nails the prickly and sometimes utterly brutal ways that teens talk. When an anti-abortion presenter describes her young mother’s decision to bring her to term, Lady Bird suggests her birth only resulted in wasting the students’ time.
Occasionally Gerwig takes a page directly from Didion and lets the film’s daffier characters prove their foolishness simply by speaking. Timothée Chalamet’s rich punk rocker Kyle reads A People’s History of the United States and calls cell phones “tracking devices” as if he thinks he’s the first to see the evil of the American empire. Chalamet whispers and smolders to support an air of cynical aloofness, but his fondness for anarchism is merely an accessory. His later admission to Lady Bird that he’s off to an expensive private college at his father’s wishes undercuts his insufferable faux-punk persona with an irony Didion would appreciate.
Privilege also keeps the good-natured Danny (Lucas Hedges) initially out of touch with Lady Bird’s struggles, but he makes a compassionate effort to see from her perspective, and a wrenching turn in his character arc makes him all the more sympathetic. The same cannot be said for Jenna (Odeya Rush), who Lady Bird befriends just by pretending to be rich. Several amusing occasions demonstrate that the spoiled young woman is equally callous and clueless.
Gerwig and editor Nick Houy move sprightly through short scenes, trusting us to understand the subtleties between images, the silence bookending witty dialogue. The film boasts dense yet efficient storytelling akin to experiencing Lady Bird’s life through her eyes or hearing her own unfiltered account. Some of the bigger laughs stem from smaller details, like when Lady Bird and best friend Julie (an ebullient Beanie Feldstein) eat a jar of communion wafers like potato chips, or when a nosebleed adds injury to insultingly bad sex. Cinematographer Sam Levy holds characters delicately in closeup and medium shots, and colorist Alex Bickels gives each narrative beat a lush, forever-sunset warmth.
Didion also wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” With Lady Bird, Gerwig collapses truth and memory into an aching dance of a movie that never loses its dreamlike spontaneity. Perhaps she told this story in order to live. Perhaps not. But how wonderful to listen.
Verdict: Movie Win
This review is part of a series of articles covering the 2017 Austin Film Festival.