While we’re up to our eyeballs in father-son stories on film, even pretty frequently seeing father-daughter and mother-son stories (both examples involving sons tend to be dysfunctional, because aren’t we just the worst?), there are relatively few really good mother-daughter films. Then along comes LADY BIRD.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is at a difficult time in her life. Her Catholic school life is coming to an end, she wants a boyfriend, she wants to go to a college that will nurture her artistic inclinations and she’d love it if her mum (Laurie Metcalf) would get off her back for once. Since none of this (by Lady Bird’s estimations) will happen while she is stuck in Sacramento, “the Midwest of California”, she sees it as just the right time for her to leave the nest.
It’s so refreshing to see Saoirse Ronan, a young actor who I’m sure has bad hair and greasy skin days like the rest of us, allowed to have acne and lank hair, because that’s what real teens look like! The teenage characters speak how real teenagers do as well; they’re bright but not ridiculously verbose as someone like Diablo Cody might write them. Lady Bird’s defense of her mathematics skills not being a strength (“that we know of…yet”) and her uncomfortably “not flirting” with the cool kid in the band (Timothée Chalamet) rings far truer than all the forced (if charming) quirk of JUNO.
Major props to Laurie Metcalf for playing a challenging personality (the family “bad cop”) so sympathetically. Lady Bird’s mother is a formidable woman really struggling to understand her difficult daughter. In one of the film’s major moments, as she leaves Lady Bird at the airport for her journey to college she has a mini-meltdown that traverses an impressive emotional obstacle course in a very short space of time, and she still just about pulls herself together before she sees her husband (Tracy Letts) again.
The best scenes are the constantly shifting, passionate, petty arguments between Lady Bird and her mother. God bless her, but Lady Bird can be more than a little insufferable. She is the kind of kid who makes a scene over eggs at breakfast and would rather throw herself out of a moving vehicle than continue an awkward conversation, after all. A key point has Lady Bird asking her mother, of her potential, “What if this is the best version?” Tellingly, her mother struggles to alleviate her doubts. Still, at least she doesn’t lie to her!
The film unusually portrays a pretty positive Catholic education. Supportive and passionate teachers (Lois Smith and Stephen Henderson among others), ample opportunities for extra-curricular growth, not being expelled for graffitiing “just married to Jesus” on a nun’s car… Even if Lady Bird feels lost, it looks like a good school, a school with a sense of humour apparently, which sends the Irish kids home to sober up after they got drunk on locker-stockpiled minis on St Patrick’s Day.
The McPhersons have a really interesting, unusual family dynamic, with adopted children, surrogate children and ungrateful biological children. This isn’t overtly explained, but seeing the family unit sitting down for breakfast and the dynamics between them gradually flesh out throughout the film is enough.
Lady Bird draws liberally from Gerwig’s experiences, and the timelines certainly match up, but Gerwig has been keen to distance the film from the biopic label. Lady Bird’s story is perhaps a bit too neatly tied up by the end, it maybe could end a scene earlier for a more ambigious final note, but there’s very little else to criticise of the film as a whole.
Gerwig’s naturalistic delivery in her acting has carried over to her writing and direction. It’s a really good-looking, sharp, confident debut and her authorial imprint is already clear. We have graphically strong transition scenes, low-key character beats and jolts of joyous, more extrovert, endearingly goofy energy. Lady Bird is a thing of understated, honest beauty and a sign of great things to come from Gerwig. SSP