Why Lady Bird Isn't Perfect and Why That's Okay
One can easily imagine that in a year or two, at an industry event, two film critics are exchanging a lighthearted banter. They're asking the usual "where are you from"s and "what are you best known for"s. To the latter, one of them replies, "Oh, I'm that one person who wrote a negative review of Lady Bird." The other's face goes instantly blank. Within seconds, every conversation around them has ceased. People gasp; at least two champagne glasses are dropped in horror and ring out against the cold, gaping quiet that has taken hold of the room. Every head is turned towards the man who just spoke.
Now, perhaps this is just a little far-fetched. Maybe no one else in the room would hear, and the other member of the conversation would simply excuse themselves for punch and not walk back. But considering how much and how widespread a disappointment followed Lady Bird's loss of it's perfect Rotten Tomato score, I can't imagine that it's too far from home.
Although I have to applaud him for sticking to his guns, I have no intention of defending this critic--in fact, I'd likely be responsible for both of those dropped glasses. That is to say, this is not a hate-fueled "list of reasons to dislike Lady Bird" essay. I simply want to understand how so many people came to care so deeply for the enigmatic heroine, and why. It's common knowledge at this point that there's something magical about the film, and I want to know what it is.
Despite the fact that just over a year has passed since it's release, the film has achieved an almost myth-like status--the tale of its creation is as important to its fans as the film itself. It's probably even considered by some to be part of it. These are various and probably known already by those of you who have access to the internet; how (the wonderful, talented, den mother of mumblecore) Greta Gerwig's first draft was 300+ pages, how the film was largely written as a love letter to her hometown of Sacramento, how (the lovely, awkwardly poignant, hair-dyed-red) Saiorse Ronan first read for Lady Bird in a hotel room with Ms. Gerwig reading for all other parts, how the film stayed at 100% until 196 reviews, the Oscar nominations, how the city of Sacramento payed for a billboard to congratulate them about the Oscar nominations; the list goes on. The level of little details one could throw themselves into here is almost Tolkienian.
The same goes for the characters that fill out this film's world; the depressed widower-turned-priest; the brother and his girlfriend that are a little further along then Lady Bird in the path of rebellion but trying to get good, paying jobs in spite of themselves; the gay boyfriend and his Irish Catholic family who keep a poster of Reagan on the wall by their staircase; the young child she sees in a hospital, their eye covered in gauze and possibly removed from underneath; the stern but caring mother who works double shifts at a psych ward to keep her family from sinking fully into poverty; the best friend completely infatuated with her married math teacher. Each character is going through something just as frustrating as Christine, some of them are going through something even more so. Each character, essentially, could have had basically the same movie made, but about them. This is part of what Lady Bird's going through, I think. The "me, me, me" mentality of early adolescence is slowly giving way to reality, and all the sudden she's seeing--or, sometimes, being forced to see but ignoring anyway--that everyone who is alive is as complex and messed up as she is.
Where "Lady Bird" begins to take a hit is mostly in its structure, which makes sense considering Gerwig's beginnings. It hides its meandering, plotless middle portion well enough, largely because it is bookmarked by two of the most original and best written opening and ending sequences of recent memory. (If you think that's a harsh summation, read the movie's Wikipedia page plot summary, skip the first and last few paragraphs of it, and tell me it doesn't sound like one of the most boring films ever made.) However, even though practically nothing happens, the film is never unenjoyable. Credit for the watchability of the plodding middle belongs mostly to the electricity of the cast. When Lady Bird and her mother argue over dresses at a thrift store and discuss whether or not they "like," not love, each other--well, I swear, I must've heard that argument between my mom and my sisters a thousand times, and yet, Ronan and Metcalf made me feel as if I was hearing it for the first time. They're acting was so on point here that, leaving the theater, I felt almost cheated, in that me and my mom and my sisters weren't the only individuals who had had these conversations.
This watchability also has to do with the fact that we have Gerwig as a writer/director. She can make boring, trivial scenes seem as iconic and cinematic as all the breaking down and crying, Academy Award-baiting ones that other directors would more often focus on. The structure of "Lady Bird" is technically unsound, perhaps even non-existent. But the characters are so real, and the truths they uncover so monumental, that it's hard to be bothered by.
"Lady Bird"'s biggest asset is its realism, and so flaws occasionally appear when it drops this for a moment. When she jumps out of the car because she just can't take another second of her mother nagging, it's played for comedy and never mentioned again (except for the cast that remains on her arm for most of the film, but we all know this by now.) But seeing as her mother is a shrink, it would far more likely turn into a serious discussion on suicide and self-destructive behavior. At a party in college, where no one knows her, someone seemingly calls 911 to have a blacked-out-drunk Lady Bird wheeled to the ER. More likely then not, other party-goers wouldn't have thought anything of it.
What I'm trying to say is that this film is a little ways away from perfection. It's structure is flimsy, it's heroine is at different times frustrating and stupid. The thing is, though, is that these things were designed. Gerwig doesn't write with structures; she never has. Even less happens in "Frances Ha" then happens here. The world doesn't work that way--in clear beginnings and middles and ends, and everyone working on this film is painfully aware of that. Just as easily as I could see that industry event playing out where everyone goes quiet, I can see Greta Gerwig, sitting in a production meeting with a just-assembled team, about to get to work. "Forget plot," she says. "Screw character development. Screw structure, flow. I just want honesty."
So, Lady Bird isn't perfect. Not in the least. But it's the best imperfect film in years.