The New Film 'Lady Bird' Soars
Lady Bird is not the name of the main character in the new film Lady Bird. Her name is Christine: Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson. It's 2002, and Lady Bird is a high school senior at a Catholic school in Sacramento, California. And she hates it. She hates the catholic school's strict rules, difficult math classes, and Sacramento itself, which she dubs "the Midwest of California." Lady Bird dreams of moving to New York, and going to an expensive East Coast college. But this dream is just out of reach: her father is out of work, and her strict mother insists that she goes to nearby U.C. Davis.
But Lady Bird is a fighter. She applies behind her mother's back, and works with her dad behind the scenes to make her dreams happen. Lady Bird's fight is inspiring. This girl just never gives up. When her mother says no, she pushes ten times harder. When she auditions for the school musical, she arrives in a stunning orange dress and sings a flawless rendition of "Everybody Says Don't" from Anyone Can Whistle. Lady Bird is like Muhammad Ali in the body of an 18-year-old girl, fighting for every win in a game that is rigged against her. It is hugely inspiring to watch.
And Saiorse Ronan turns in an extraordinary performance playing the title role. Appearing in nearly every scene, Ronan is the anchor of the entire film. It is a testament to Ronan's acting ability that she is in so much of the film, and you never get sick of her. Her slouching, scheming, and intense romantic desires draw you in, and make you root for her. This performance is also radically different from anything Ronan has ever done: she has so far played roles like the young aristocrat Briony Tallis in Atonement, an Irish immigrant in the film Brooklyn, and a ruthless assassin in the eponymous film Hanna. Playing an awkward American teen so convincingly shows the full range of Saiorse Ronan's talent, and is proof that she is one of the greatest actresses of her generation. It would be criminal if she weren't nominated for the Oscar this season.
Surrounding Lady Bird is a supreme cast of actors who capture the joy, romance, and pain of being in high school. Beanie Feldstein in particular shines as Lady Bird's good-hearted friend, Julie. Feldstein wins your heart with her character's kindness, awkward singing, and overall joie de vivre. Julie's unrequited crush on her cute math teacher also makes your heart melt. Feldstein made me wish that she were my best friend in high school. An adorable Lucas Hedges is also terrific as Lady Birds love interest, Danny. And Timothée Chalamet plays the role of Kyle, everyone's favorite fuck-boy, who spends the film smoking hand-rolled cigarettes and reading A People's History of the United States at the local coffee house. You could almost feel the eyes rolling in the audience. Tracy Letts also delivers a great performance as Lady Bird's father. He plays her father with understated warmth, and kindness. He also portrays the character's struggle with depression and unemployment with great dignity.
Although the film belongs to Saiorse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf takes a close second place as her harsh, hard-working mother. Metcalf plays the typical over-worked, worried American mother who loves her daughter, but shows it in all the wrong ways. With her devotion, and tender-heartedness, Metcalf makes you believe that she is the typical Mom who drops her daughter off at school, and works double shifts on Sunday. This is not an easy illusion for a Hollywood star to accomplish, but Metcalf pulls it off swimmingly.
But the real star of the film is writer and first time director Greta Gerwig. Gerwig has written a deeply personal, richly detailed script that captures the joy and pain of being young so vividly. The film's a true ride down memory lane, filled with school dances, the awkwardness of drama club, and romantic meetings in soccer fields gazing at the stars. Several grown men in the audience were crying at the showing I attended, many of us realizing that we only appreciated the beauty of our upbringings and small towns well after we left them. But the film is also hugely funny: there were several deliciously awkward moments that had me howling with laughter. It's rare and impressive to have a film that hits so many emotional places.
It is commendable that in her film, Gerwig captures the struggles of middle class America in a genre that is so used to being about the ennui of upper class, east coast elites. Lady Bird shows you an entirely different part of the country that usually goes unnoticed; she makes Sacramento's class inequality, and the dreams of its people known with her film. The movie's beautiful footage of Sacramento's fields, signs, drive-ins, and bridges gives you the sense that Gerwig does her hometown proud.
The film also passes the Bechdel Test many times over. The characters engage in conversations and are put in situations that address female issues such as body image, friendship, and mother-daughter relationships in a way that is real, and relatable. It is wonderful to see a film where women are not warring over a man, or engaging in a ridiculous "cat fight." In order to create more authentic female narratives like Lady Bird, the film industry needs more female leaders and women-led content. And based on the strength of Lady Bird, it seems that Greta Gerwig will be a new female leader in Hollywood.
Lady Bird is one of the rare films that is truly for everyone. Regardless of your race, gender, or age, surviving the awkwardness of high school, and coming of age are experiences that everyone shares. Lady Bird screams, yells, falls in love, faces major disappointments, and has great triumphs; you can't help but relate to her, and root for her. The universality and timelessness of its themes is why I think it will eventually be a classic. Go see it.
© 2017 Mark Nimar