There is a lot more on Lady Bird’s mind than just another teenage coming of age story. On the surface, it’s a perfect successor to last year’s Edge of Seventeen, with its fully realized lead female and secondary characters and sharp wit. Underneath that is a movie about how the place you come from is a part of you no matter how far you want to run from it. Lady Bird is the most real and down to earth drama-comedy about high school that has been made it a long time.
The story of Lady Bird is simple and straightforward. This is Christine McPherson’s (or Lady Bird as she likes to be called) final year in a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. She is in the process of looking for colleges. Her mom (played by Laurie Metcalf) wants her to stay close to home while Lady Bird wants to go “where culture is”; to the east coast, to New York. This while she tries to navigate social circles and boyfriends in her senior year.
Lady Bird is a quiet movie. Quiet in the sense that it doesn’t feel the need to include large over the top sequences to generate laughs or pander to high schoolers, Lady Bird is a stripped down approach to high school movies, an approach that feels rare but more genuine. One of the hardest things it seems for writers and filmmakers to do is to write high schoolers without coming across as condescending or having a lack of understanding. Even Spider-Man: Homecoming struggled mightily in writing down to earth teenage characters. Lady Bird exceeds in this regard. Every character here feels thought out and feels like people that you’ve met in your own high school days. There isn’t a lot of monologues about feelings, the feelings exist in the subtext of the film. This really comes from the strength of solo directorial debut of screenwriter/director Greta Gerwig.
Lady Bird is played by Brooklyn star Saoirse Ronan. Ronan sheds the Irish accent and dials up the angst and anger in a performance unlike any other in her career. Ronan is able to play Lady Bird with attitude but still remaining enduring to the audience. It is a tough role to play when her character is almost always at odds with different people. It would be easy for an actress to overplay the adversity to the point where you start to hate the character. Ronan avoids that completely by injecting the character with a strong heart. Lady Bird cares about her family but has a lot of insecurities about her socioeconomic status. It doesn’t really matter what gender you are there is something that can be relatable or at the very least epithetical about Ronan’s performance.
The rest of the cast of colorful characters are played perfectly. Beanie Feldstein fills out of the role of the best friend extremely well. Lucas Hedges of Manchester by The Sea fame is excellent (and very different from his Manchester role). The parent characters have dimension to them through the terrific and nuanced performances of Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts. A lot of the Catholic teachers are memorable especially Lois Smith as Sister Sarah Joan.
Lady Bird as a film plays around with the idea of home and identity. Throughout the movie, Lady Bird keeps on complaining about how much she hates it in Sacramento. This is established in the opening minutes of the movie. But the question reoccurs throughout the movie, does Lady Bird really hate her home as much as she said does? The movie asks that question so powerfully that it forces us to ask the same question in our own reality, about our own homes. This type of question makes Lady Bird a lot more interesting than just a movie about the struggles of high school.
There are some small elements of Lady Bird that don’t work as well as others (there is some friend drama that doesn’t get as much development as it perhaps should) but outside of those story elements, Lady Bird is nearly flawless. It was genuine, it had heart, laughs and a compelling and thoughtful story of growing up and faced with the task of wanting to leave home. Similar to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and (oddly enough) Kenneth Lonergan Manchester By The Sea I was wrapped up in every second of the characters journey and never wanted it to come to an end. There could not be a better way for Greta Gerwig to introduce audiences to her directing skills and proves she will be a directing force to be reckoned with (not to mention this is perhaps one of the greatest films directed by a female filmmaker here in North America). With Edge of Seventeen last year and now Lady Bird this year perhaps we’re entering a new era for coming of age teenage dramas. Lady Bird is one of the finest pictures of the year and one that I urge you to seek out if it is in a theater near you.