I GUESS THIS IS GROWING UP
The title of Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is Lady Bird, the self-appointed moniker that her lead Christine (Saoirse Ronan) calls herself. But what’s in a name or in this case a nickname? As she proudly proclaims it is a name “given to me by me” – a mark of independence with hints of rebellion but within that, there is also a metaphor for her own arc. Like a bird trying to spread its wings and fly to new horizons, Christine dreams of attending a college on the east coast, far far away from her hometown of Sacramento and the shackles of her mother (Laurie Metcalf). Of course, envisioning flight and actually flying are two entirely different things much like saying you are an adult and actually being an adult. This shift from adolescence to early adulthood is told with brilliant authenticity in Lady Bird – a film that captures both the excitement of having seemingly endless potential in front of you as well as the crushing vulnerability of exposing yourself to the unknown outside world.
Drawing inspiration from Gerwig’s own teenage years (she also wrote the film), Lady Bird is set in 2003. Here news of the Iraq War dominates the news cycle, cell phones are exclusive to the affluent and the recently solo Justin Timberlake is the go-to artist at house parties. This is the world that Christine has to navigate as a high school senior simultaneously attempting to stand out as much as she is trying to fit in. At this stage, she doesn’t quite know what her identity is but she is willing to explore every avenue to find it. Gerwig presents a time capsule with Lady Bird that despite only being 15 years past already feels like a lifetime ago.
Gerwig writes and directs with great care for tone, form, and structure. She is one of the few voices in Hollywood that not only adds a female perspective but a millennial perspective on storytelling. The coming of age story is a tried and true genre mined to the core but Gerwig’s unique voice breathes a much needed breath of fresh air into the genre.
She shoots her hometown of Sacramento with a love enshrining its landmarks with warm vibrant tones. Like Woody Allen does for New York in Manhattan, Gerwig does for Sacramento framing everything from its people to the extremely mundane in a nostalgic light. What it creates is a warm bubble of safety, the place we don’t know we miss until we step outside and see that there is indeed no place quite like home.
Lady Bird sees the full formation of the character that Gerwig has been developing over the years in Frances Ha, Mistress America and Greenberg (all of which she either starred in or co-wrote). This influence is not lost on Saoirse Ronan as she transforms her natural Irish accent into a traditional American one borrowing many of Gerwig’s idiosyncrasies in her performance. She is the typical teenager who wants to fit in with the cool crowd but where many of her classmates hail from the wealthy part of town, Christine is from the other side of the tracks (literally). As such her family’s financial struggles become a major point of disconnect between mother and daughter especially when it comes to the dream of attending the extremely expensive college across the country. Complimenting each other well, Ronan and Metcalf explore a wonderful dynamic that sometimes reaches a boiling point but is just as quickly dissipated when they stumble upon the perfect dress at the thrift store. Because at the end of the day there is an unwavering love there that will always be present.
The sincerity and poignancy that Gerwig places in her debut are a rarity. Though much of the focus is reserved for Christine and her journey, there are also more subtle progressions for the minor characters. No one here is perfect and Gerwig understands that. Sure, there are some people that mean more than others, some relationships that are good and some that are decidedly worse but it is the discovery of which fits into which category that makes life interesting. The learning process and the accumulation of life’s lessons is what ultimately makes us adults not some arbitrary date on the calendar. Through that, there are euphoric highs like being kissed for the first time and depressing lows like heartbreak. These monumental events in one’s life are often explored through cliches but Lady Bird exhibits a distinct maturity that manages to not get too caught up in the melodrama.
Christine, like many of us, undergoes this process on her own terms dating both the classic good guy (Lucas Hedges from Manchester By The Sea) and the bad boy (Call Me By Your Name’s Timothee Chalamet) and comes to the realization that the cool kids are not nearly as cool as they seem. By the end of her eventful senior year, she has become an adult chronologically speaking and has crossed off many of the checkpoints that we associate with adulthood. Finally, she is the unrestrained adult she wanted to be. The funny thing with that though is sometimes you are in such a rush to get somewhere but when you finally get there, you step back and realize you miss all that you left behind.