Greta Gerwig is primarily known for her ‘auteur-muse’ relationship with director Noah Baumbach, which has produced such gems as ‘Frances Ha’, ‘Mistress America’ and ‘Greenberg’. I have also enjoyed watching her in the role of Natalie Portman’s best friend in the diverse ‘No Strings Attached’ and ‘Jackie’. Although she has directed before, this is Gerwig’s ‘mainstream’ directorial debut and she has very much stepped out from under Baumbach’s shadow.
There are a few surprising things about ‘Lady Bird’. Firstly, it is not set in New York, as one might expect from Gerwig, but in Sacramento. While it is the state capital of California, Sacramento is nowhere near as well known as Los Angeles or San Francisco and is described as the ‘mid-west of California’ in the film. It definitely has a small-town feel here and one that needs to be escaped, especially as Lady Bird literally lives on the wrong side of the tracks. I was also surprised to discover that it is set in 2002-2003, making the character of Lady Bird five years younger than me. Despite this age gap, many of the music and fashion references did feel painfully real to me and it doused the whole thing in the heavy pall of nostalgia; not all of it positive.
Soairse Ronan plays Christine McPherson, who insists on being called ‘Lady Bird’. She is a Catholic high school senior, dealing with typical problems such as friendships, boyfriends and what she’s going to do with the rest of her life. Her parents are going through financial problems, leading to her mother (in an amazing performance from Laurie Metcalf) working double shifts in a psychiatric hospital. Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (the very appealing Beanie Feldstein) decide to audition for the school musical, where Lady Bird immediately takes a shine to Danny (Lucas Hedges). Further down the line, Lady Bird gets involved with new friend ‘rich bitch’ Jenna and new boy, the rebellious Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) which works out about as well as could be expected.
The real success here is in the writing – it makes the whole thing feel so real. It is very funny – early scenes of Lady Bird ‘running for office’ in her school and coming into conflict with her teachers are hilarious. The naturalistic performances are also a key part of what makes this film so good. The 23 year old Ronan plays a 17/18 year old incredibly convincingly in a vanity-free performance, including showing her ‘adolescent’ skin and I would love to see her get a Best Actress Oscar nomination. I have heard everyone who has seen ‘Call Me By Your Name’ (still not out in the US) going crazy about Timothee Chalamet, but hadn’t really seen the appeal, based on photographs alone. Having now seen ‘Miss Stevens’ (recommended) and ‘Lady Bird’, I am beginning to see it more. He does have a magnetic screen presence and is very charismatic, even when playing an enormous douche, as he is here.
Smaller roles are taken by Lois Smith as one of the nuns at Lady Bird’s school and Stephen Henderson as the priest who runs the musical. Both put in funny and emotional turns. Another highlight is Lady Bird’s brother Miguel (a Berkeley graduate who now has a job bagging groceries) and his girlfriend Shelly who has moved in with the family. Lucas Hedges (both funny and devastating in last year’s ‘Manchester By The Sea’) gives another nuanced performance – demonstrating that he is definitely one to watch.
The other acting highlight is without doubt, Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson. This film is really about the mother-daughter relationship and is painfully real. There are the typical teenage conflicts, exacerbated by financial strains and Marion trying to keep her daughter’s college expectations in the real world. Of course, the real source of the conflict is Lady Bird’s rejection of Sacramento and her family, but this comes full circle into revealing the clear affection she has for both by the end. I almost had to watch the scene of Lady Bird trying on prom dresses through my fingers – its a scene that could have been pulled straight from my life. The audience’s empathy is pulled in both directions, between the two characters. Marion gets understandably frustrated by Lady Bird’s lack of appreciation for everything her family are doing for her. However, her mother’s hypercritical negativity does engender sympathy for Lady Bird, who at times, reaches out to her mother and is rejected. Safe to say, I was an emotional mess by the end, despite having laughed out loud throughout the whole film.
On fairly limited release in the US at the moment and not hitting the UK until February (which will be good timing for Oscar buzz), Lady Bird is definitely worth seeking out. There is something for all ages to identify with and you will find yourself torn between the generations, but ultimately feeling great affection for all of the characters. Lady Bird is a success because of the exceptional writing and directing from Greta Gerwig and I cannot wait to see what she does next.