One of writer/director Noah Baumbach’s many smart career moves was to collaborate with actor Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplays for both Frances Ha and Mistress America. She brought an added layer of vitality to his work and, most importantly, an authenticity to films centered around young women. He realized that without her voice, he would be yet another guy in his 40s trying to speak for women half his age. (Woody Allen would do wise to follow a similar path.)
In Lady Bird, Gerwig strikes out alone, removing herself from the actual picture and taking on the dual role of writer and director. She’s covering semi-autobiographical ground, telling the story of a confused teenage girl in Sacramento (“the midwest of California”) in 2002. Christine (Saoirse Ronan), or Lady Bird as she prefers to be called, is drifting through her final year of high school with lofty, perhaps unrealistic, aspirations of where she’ll be heading to college. She frequently clashes with mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) whose real world concerns about money and a sense of order in their home are of little interest. Instead, Lady Bird cares about the opposite sex, her social life and daydreaming about what the future might hold.
It reads like well-worn territory and when a first-time director picks their own life as inspiration for a debut feature, the results can often seem self-indulgent. But Lady Bird doesn’t exist as a twee indie movie construct, it feels thrillingly real and deeply personal, every single beat ringing true. Despite a background in mumblecore, Gerwig’s film is tightly engineered and at 93 minutes there isn’t a wasted word. As shown in her previous work with Baumbach, she’s an empathetic humanist but she’s also willing to showcase her characters’ more difficult traits. There’s a wonderful tendency for scenes to switch moods within a single line of dialogue, especially those between mother and daughter. Gerwig knows how easily the choice of a particular word can sour an otherwise pleasant situation and as a result the film takes on a believably rocky tone.
As a mini-Gerwig of sorts, Ronan is sensational, delivering arguably her greatest performance since she broke out with Atonement. Like any teenage girl of her age, she’s a mixed bag of emotions, careering between joy, sadness, fear and anger without ever allowing us to see the joins. There’s also a fantastic turn from Metcalf, so consistently underused on screen, who in a just world would be an automatic best supporting actress front-runner for her finely observed character work here. Gerwig has gifted her with a role that is often half-drawn in many other coming-of-age tales. She isn’t nagging because that’s what moms do but has her own detailed reasoning for why she pokes and prods. In one scene, she chastises Lady Bird for leaving her school uniform on the floor and then proceeds to explain exactly what financial and societal concerns have led her to stress this request so strongly.
There are some slight but meaningful interactions between mother and father, played wonderfully by Tracy Letts, that provide insight into the parental structure that Lady Bird so often disrespects. It’s a film made with both sides in mind, Gerwig’s maturity as a film-maker creating a fully fleshed out family unit. There’s also a fine eye and ear for high school life with woozy romance, bitchy peers and “unspecial sex” all handled with skill and Gerwig avoids hitting predictable notes despite a third act prom and airport goodbye. There’s a casual recognition of the era rather than a fetishistic need for nostalgia with only the odd technological reference or early Justin Timberlake song to remind us of the period.
Lady Bird is a film bursting with warmth, wit and melancholy that manages to seem fresh and unexpected despite the overly stacked nature of the subgenre. Gerwig displays no narcissism as someone sharing a version of her past or an aching desire to be hip as a young film-maker and instead relies on genuine, deeply felt emotion to sell her story. It’s an impeccably crafted film.
- Lady Bird is screening at the Toronto film festival and will be released in the US on 10 November and in the UK at a later date
- Flying high: Vietnam hot air balloon fest woos enthusiasts
- Flying high on love, Vietnamese acrobats win silver
- Vietnam sees high-speed train flying high
- Actress Katie Holmes to make directorial debut with 'All We Had'
- Young man from Hue flies high with kites
- Market flies high on strong demand
- Vietnamese drone pics fly high at int’l aerial photo contest
- Kites fly high in Hue sky
- Vietnamese aviation sector poised to fly high
- VietJetAir flying high on smiles for Children's Day