Teenage Epiphany

Movie Review – Lady Bird

Directed by Greta Gerwig

Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, and Beanie Feldstein

If the sun went super nova and rained down on the Earth, not destruction, but a blinding light of talent and an electrifying screen presence, it might be something like Saoirse Ronan. Ronan, who won critical praise and an Oscar nomination for her deeply felt performance in John Crowley’s loving homage to Irish immigrants, Brooklyn, again floodlights the screen as Christine McPherson, a wacky, self-absorbed 17-year-old with mother problems, a wickedly satirical tongue, and a penchant for lying, in writer/director Greta Gerwig’s engaging new comedy-drama, Lady Bird.

Christine’s passive-aggressive mother (Laurie Metcalf) is constantly criticizing her. She’s clearly frustrated with her daughter and worried about what the girl will do with her life. About to graduate from high school, even Christine doesn’t know. She just wants her life to be special. So she insists people call her Lady Bird, whines about her lackluster hometown of Sacramento, and engages in outrageous behavior to attract attention. She auditions for the school musical (a welcome opportunity for the characters to sing Sondheim), engages in relationships and leaves her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) to hang out with the beautiful rich girl. Maybe, just maybe she’ll go to college, but only if she can get into a good one.

Christine is a master bullshit artist. She darts around like the very animal she’s chosen as a namesake, trying to find meaning in her life with little careful thought. But it’s too easy to dismiss her flaws. Her free spirit is addictive. She may be selfish and irresponsible, but she’s smart and she pays attention and she grows. She has an epiphany and in a lovely moment of redemption that closes the film we see a more grown up Christine confessing her sins and her love for her mother. Lady Bird is a coming of age story, but the coming of age is not through a loss of innocence, but through the acquiring of wisdom and maturity.

With her punk pink hair and a dry delivery, Ronan is simply electrifying as Christine. It would have been so easy for her to overplay this, to dwell on the character’s eccentricities as if winking at the audience, but Ronan doesn’t need all that. She needs merely to inhabit Christine’s own personal truths. Why some actors can project energy on the screen without even saying a word and others can’t, is one of the great mysteries of screen acting. Saoirse Ronan has that ability in spades.

Ronan’s dominating performance notwithstanding, the movie maintains much of its focus on the mother-daughter relationship. Its opening shot is of the two sleeping in bed, face to face, almost in some circle of mother/daughter energy. The two are, the shot suggests, one entity – two sides of the same coin. Tempers flare and angry words fly in several hilarious and cutting arguments, but through most of these scenes there’s a palpable subtext between them. Like so many mothers and daughters, they love each other but are caught in a routine of rivalry.

Metcalf, a long time Hollywood veteran who began her career with Chicago’s storied Steppenwolf Theater and won three Emmys for her brilliant work on TV’s Roseanne, seems born for the role of Marion, Christine’s mother. You can feel the angst and bitterness, the guilt behind her eyes and quivering mouth. She knows she’s unfair to Lady Bird, but she can’t stop it. An actress less seasoned than Metcalf might have sunk under Marion’s negative energy into some devil-mom caricature, but we never doubt Marion’s love for Lady Bird. Fresh off a lead actress Tony for the play A Doll’s House part 2, this could be her year for an Oscar as well.

Director/writer Gerbig, who co-wrote and delivered a memorable performance as the similarly quirky lead in Noah Baumbach’s low budget gem, Francis Ha, navigates sit-com territory here. But she steers through the clichés with a wicked ear for dialogue and some finely detailed characterizations. With a properly fleshed out script, Lady Bird sidesteps the usual hokey moralizing and shopworn characters. Gerwig’s script doesn’t embellish Christine’s eccentricities. She never becomes some stilted Hollywood kooky girl. Her actions constantly shock and surprise, but they arise naturally from her character. It never seems forced. Even the minor characters are richly written and multi-dimensional. They too, like the leads, have sides to them that we don’t see initially. Even the cliquey rich girl has more than one dimension. She’s not your stereotypical high school bitch.

This is Gerwig’s first film as a solo director and she could well become only the fifth woman ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar. She brings a subdued, muted tone to the film that plays nicely against Christine’s flamboyance. Like the story itself, this film looks and feels authentic. Gerwig and her cinematographer use restrained colors that perfectly evoke the banalities of daily suburban life. Hazy light filters through bedroom windows while the characters live go about their lives making beds, cleaning house, arguing. The whole movie has that air of authenticity. It breezes through most of its 96-minute running time with nary a false note.

Lady Bird is remarkable for being that rare high-profile, high quality movie centered on female characters. But it’s equally remarkable in the way it illustrates how oft-told stories can be fresh and relevant when they’re told with wit and an honest voice.

Rating: 86/100