MOVIE REVIEW: Lady Bird
Festival Centerpiece and Special Presentation selection of the 53rd Chicago International Film Festival
LADY BIRD-- 5 STARS
In the subgenre of female-centered coming-of-age films, the range between the syrupy Now and Then and the hard truths of Welcome to the Dollhouse feels scattered and undefined compared to their male-driven counterparts. It is even more difficult to find female perspectives written and directed by a female voice. A few stalwart examples have emerged over the years, like Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen or Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen. But when the most seminal female-led coming-of-age story in the general public remains John Hughes’ Sixteen Candles from 33 years ago, greater evolution of feminism is needed.
In her solo feature directorial debut, Greta Gerwig has stepped in and pushed this cinematic species tremendously forward with the dramedy Lady Bird. The film destroys any notion of the “manic pixie dream girl” fakery. Lady Bird is a cornucopia woven with striking candor and filled with delightful oxymorons artfully composed to challenge taboos and stereotypes. Let’s give each oxymoron a life lesson and a paragraph or two along the way.
Rising star Saoirse Ronan, already a two-time Academy Award nominee for Atonement and Brooklyn at the age of 23, mashes down her Irish brogue accent as Christine MacPherson, who insists to all that she be called “Lady Bird.” Observing her 2002-2003 senior year, Lady Bird fleshes out Christine, a Sacramento teen ashamed of her middle-class stature while attending Catholic school with richer kids. She longs to break away from her parental and regional confinements on a dream of heading to the east coast for a liberal college experience.
LESSON #1: DORKY ASSUREDNESS AND ADORABLE WEIRDNESS-- Lady Bird is not a very good student, but wants nothing more than to spread wings and conquer the world. Christine makes snap decisions on selfish whims and speaks on wanting more out of life with statements like “I want to go where culture is” and “I want to live through something.” Still, she’s a girl that will cry to Dave Matthews Band songs after a break-up and decorate her room with the randomness of a 17-year-old’s ideals of image and beauty.
Lady Bird sees her rise coming through a performance streak of trying out for theater with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein of Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) and crushing on a nerdy co-performer named Danny (Manchester by the Sea Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges, working the complete opposite end of high school from that 2016 role). At the same time, her hot-and-cold jealousy of the popular and well-to-do crowd exists in the draw towards the popular bitch presence of Jenna (Goosebumps’ Odeya Rush) and the cool band guy archetype of Kyle (Interstellar’s Timothée Chalamet). Feldstein, Hedges, Rush, and Chalamet offer exciting fresh-faced performances with a wealth of nuances in each.
LESSON #2: IMMORAL HONESTY-- All the while, Christine has little shame in a supposedly holy setting. The film dives into a high school world of an uppity parochial community laced with unhinged debauchery. Authority is challenged, wild hearts fight off the birds-and-the-bees, communion wafers are chowed down as secret snacks, and other such shenanigans thumb their nose with individuality and frankness at the perception of sin and rules like “six inches for the Holy Spirit.”
LESSON #3: FLATTERING SARCASM-- Acidic language meets sweet poetry in the biting script from Greta Gerwig. Line readings from many exit with hilarious sighs and groans. Snappy dialogue and comebacks like “Don’t be a Republican” fly in every direction. The praise of flattery to all of this banter and irony centers on Gerwig’s brilliant accomplishment of creating deadly honest characters that draw smiles of approval and grimaces of empathy.
Christine is both countered and supported by a pair of hard-working parents, her tech worker father Larry (a pitch-perfect Tracy Letts) and her overworked nurse mother Marion (Emmy-winning TV star Laurie Metcalf). You feel the nonverbal hints that Marion and Christine were closer before adolescence and have moments of bonding, but their relationship is an ugly one now.
LESSON #4: PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE PARENTING-- Marion’s stressed work brings a misunderstood and mishandled tough love to Christine. A big heart lies underneath the worry wort, but the butted heads of two strong personalities across mother and daughter explode often. Metcalf’s argumentative scenes with Ronan are utterly potent from every angle. Expect Oscar nominee clips for both ladies to come from these scenes.
LESSON #5: TREATING GRAVITY WITH LIGHTNESS AND VICE VERSA-- Gerwig helms 93 winning minutes that never waste a moment to emphasize life’s balance of both comedy and drama. Throughout Lady Bird, heavy themes are met with genteel lightness and nonsensical delights still ring with seriousness. This all goes back to the Gerwig’s brilliance of making realistic characters from Lesson #3.
LESSON #6: PUNCHY WHIMSY-- All of Lady Bird’s conflicts and clashes build to swelling peaks of emotion and legitimate feels. Jon Brion’s music flutters the whimsy of quickly smitten romances and the valley-level lows of trapped hopelessness in-between. Summing all of the oxymoron’s up, Gerwig’s film is one heck of a debut and shows that a good cry and awkward laughs do go together when assembled with truth and care. When it hits, my goodness, it hits. When it charms, by golly, it charms. Few films this year can tout such towering achievements of writing and performance to create such a genuinely satisfying experience.