Movie Review: Lady Bird

Independent coming of age film avoids the high school cliches

Lady Bird
Directed by Greta Gerwig
With Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges. Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein

The coming of age film set in a high school and building up to the prom has been done often, usually as a mix of low-brow comedy and turgid romance. Writer/director Greta Gerwig in her directorial debut Lady Bird brings something fresh and authentic to the genre.

Lady Bird had five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, but in the end, was shut out. It did win two Golden Globes: Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy and Best Actress – Motion Picture Musical or Comedy for Saoirse Ronan.

The film catches Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (played by Saoirse Ronan) during her last year of high school. Her life is dominated by her possessive and controlling mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who criticizes Christine virtually nonstop throughout the film. Much of the complaining has to do with money, as the family is poor compared to other people in Sacramento, California.

In an early scene in the film, Christine jumps out of a moving car to get away from the endless criticism. She sports a cast on her arm for the bulk of the film.

The mother is afraid of school violence and is sending Christine to an expensive Catholic high school, rather than the free public school. Christine would rather be in the public school, which has fewer restrictions and would save the family money.

Nuns and priests are often played as broad caricatures. Even though the film is mainly from Christine’s point of view, the school’s staff is depicted rather fairly. One elderly nun, in particular, tries to help Christine to fit in with the program and overlooks several rule violations.

The issues Christine deals with are typical ones for teens: romance, school grades, popularity and what college to go to. She also has many domestic issues with her mother, her more supportive father and her condescending brother.

One main theme in the film is Christine trying to become popular with the rich and pretty students, which forces her to ignore her previous best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein).

At the same time, though, Christine is concerned about the big picture and wants to go to a university that will help her develop her potential and not a local school that gives out associate degrees.

Greta Gerwig’s script treats these issues with maturity, which is often lacking in this genre. Saoirse Ronan’s performance also adds credibility in bringing the main character to life.

Laurie Metcalf had a difficult role as the mother. Despite her endless criticism, she is not a monster. She actually does have what is best of Christine in mind, but often she is wrong about what that is. Christine’s own ideas for what to do with her life are perhaps a bit better.

Minor characters are also well-thought out. One young man that Christine becomes interested in is Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). He is broody and reads far-left-wing books about politics. He turns every conversation into some sort of game where he is blameless, and everyone else is guilty of all the atrocities going on in the world. Everyone knew a Kyle in high school.

Greta Gerwig is better known as an actress, although she does not appear onscreen in Lady Bird. She has been associated with the mumblecore film movement, low-budget independent films that are heavy on dialogue and explore the lives of people in their 20s and 30s. She also appeared in the historical film Jackie and the romantic comedy Maggie’s Plan, for example.

Lady Bird is her first effort as a sole director, though she did co-direct previously. She is just the fifth woman to be nominated for an Oscar for directing, So far Kathryn Bigelow is the only woman to win, for Hurt Locker in 2009.

Gerwig’s directing style is very laid back, so much so that you forget the film even has a director. But that isn’t necessarily a bad thing when watching a character-driven story. You leave with the sense of having met all these actual people, rather than seeing a made-up tale told with a lot of fancy camera tricks.

Gerwig grew up in the Sacramento area, and that likely added to the feel of authenticity she brings to the material.

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