Two A24 films in one day?! And it’s not even a weekend?! That’s right, I decided to treat myself on this Thursday, and catch up on a couple of smaller Oscar bait films, and Lady Bird is the second of the day. Earlier this week, the film became the best-reviewed film in Rotten Tomatoes history, so if it wasn’t on my radar before that (it was), it would’ve been after. Before I looked into the movie a bit, I actually thought it was a historical biography about Lady Bird Johnson. As reasonable an assumption as that was (and I know I’m not the only one who has made it), it couldn’t have been more incorrect, as, in actuality, the film is a coming of age tale by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.
In 2002, 17-year-old Christine McPherson (Ronan) – who has dubbed herself “Lady Bird” – faces the pressures of looming adulthood. As she struggles to not only determine who she currently is but who she wishes to be in the future, life is made more difficult by her overbearing and unsympathetic mother Marion (Metcalf). As Lady Bird comes to terms with the meaning and significance of the other primary figures in her life – most notably her loving and supportive father Larry (Tracy Letts), brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and her two potential love interests Danny and Kyle (Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet, respectively) – she must continuously navigate the landmine that is the relationship with her mother.
Coming of age stories are not remotely uncommon, making it exceedingly more difficult for new ones to stand out amongst a very crowded and beloved mass of others both past and present. What primarily makes Lady Bird different from the rest is that the primary relationship in the film is that of mother and daughter. Typically, these films follow a young adult as they find their way into a place of comfort with their peers while we occasionally get a glimpse of how those efforts are affecting their home life. In Lady Bird, the title character’s entire foundation is shaped and molded by a mother by whom Lady Bird feels she has never been accepted. So, flipping the script, the viewer sees how this single relationship creates a butterfly effect upon all of the others in Lady Bird’s life.
On one hand, Marion’s parenting style can be chalked up to fear. For instance, it’s been less than a year since the attacks of September 11 and her daughter wants to leave Sacramento and go to college in New York City. But on the other hand, the ways in which Marion channels and expresses these fears are simultaneously selfish, childish, and hurtful to Lady Bird, putting the emotional well-being of her own daughter second to that of her own.
Ironically, that means Marion potentially has a lot to learn from her own daughter, Lady Bird, who feels torn between being true to herself and being who her mother wants her to be, just to get a taste of the acceptance she has always desperately wanted. Essentially – and sadly – Lady Bird feels that any love for her that is felt by her mother comes from a place of obligation rather than one of sincerity.
That’s something I can to relate to, not regarding my mother, but with other members of my family. And I know I’m not the only one. So, anyone who has felt like the odd one out in their own family will have plenty to latch onto in Lady Bird. It’s an oft-overlooked component of life, but one that is extremely impactful and formative, especially – but certainly not exclusively – in the years of early adulthood.
This dynamic leads to a pair of memorable performances from both Ronan and Metcalf. As Lady Bird, Ronan feels the need to maintain a tough exterior, but there are subtleties underneath the surface of Ronan’s performance that leak through with flawless timing and seasoned delivery. Metcalf’s Marion is similarly tough on the outside, but also much more expressive and emotional. At times, Metcalf is permitted to provide some rather moving moments that should touch any viewers capable of the slightest bit of empathy.
For me, this film doesn’t approach 2016’s coming-of-age classic The Edge of Seventeen, but that’s more due to the fact that Seventeen is an exceptional film that excels in every single way – a truly special movie – than because of any shortcomings in Lady Bird. Simply put, even if I wasn’t quite as drawn in by Lady Bird as I was by Seventeen, Lady Bird still does everything right and puts a new spin on the coming-of-age subgenre. It reminds me of the truth that film reflects society and the more we watch, the more viewpoints we come to see, and therefore the better we understand the world around us (I wrote an entire column about that here, though I focused on event films in that particular piece). Through Lady Bird, Gerwig has something new to say, and she does so in a funny, entertaining, poignant, and resonant way. Expect plenty of award nominations to be racking up for this one, soon. Catch it before there’s a bandwagon.
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