Film finds beauty in ugliness of adolescence
“Lady Bird,” writer/actor Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, opens with an argument between a mother and her daughter. As the girl is preparing to graduate from high school, each pictures radically different visions for how her near future will shape up. The titular character is eager, striving for the green grass of the other side while neglecting the situation at hand. As she sees it, she will be attending an Ivy League school or – at the very least – a prestigious East Coast university. She’ll fly off to some mysterious metropolitan paradise to finally blossom and become who she’s meant to be.
Mom’s visualization for her daughter involves a slight bounce back after a short stint in prison.
This theme concerning parents and their teenagers isn’t a new one, but it’s the thorough exploration of the familiar that provides the film with its beauty.
Proud, strong and self-righteous, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) faces her final year in Sacramento, California, like she’s staring down the barrel of a gun. With all the angst and baggage clinging to her like they do to most 17-year-olds, she’s ready to fly the coop, constantly hiding her true, humble identity from her wealthier, well-to-do classmates. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf) works constantly to support their dysfunctional family unit, which includes her recently unemployed father and her anarchist-in-training brother, who still sleeps on the family couch with his girlfriend, even after collecting his degree from Berkley. They get by at best, but Lady Bird is determined to project otherwise whenever possible, and she spends her entire final year in Sacramento running from the familiar before learning to relish in it.
“Lady Bird” is a really fantastic coming-of-age film. It feels true and authentic in ways that never before have been depicted cinematically. It doesn’t waste time establishing an entire high school worth of caricatures; instead, we see only Lady Bird’s perspective on life, which usually is the only perspective she takes time to pay attention to anyway.
Almost all great movies in this vein never let on to what they truly are. High school is when you start to carve out your own identity. When a film begins ambitiously, determined to be a story about adolescence, finding love and growing up, it immediately sheds its realism. Because “Lady Bird” shies away from this kind of narrative, it never feels like a coming-of-age film until it’s all over. It’s perplexing and mesmerizing, seeming more like a sweet piece of nostalgic candy with its needle drops and hairstyles dating to the early 2000s. And to its benefit, it’s completely new and strange yet familiar and comfortable, all at the same time.
Finally sitting behind the camera, Gerwig proves her moviemaking mettle her first time at bat, swiftly directing her own script to perfection. Her onscreen experience, particularly her debut acting role in “Frances Ha,” clearly has helped her transition to the director’s chair with ease on this project. Bridging that semi-autobiographical tale with this maxi-autobiographical one, she’s able to let Ronan slip into the role seamlessly. Ronan and the entire cast all conspire to deliver a really moving portrait of modern-day, American family life, and Gerwig constructs a beautiful visual love-letter to her hometown. allowing the characters to soak it up often.
Perhaps the sensation of viewing this story from the top down and knowing the inevitable conclusion makes the movie oddly sentimental. Even when danger is presented, there’s a comforting sense that everything will work out, and that feeling permeates every scene of the film, producing a pleasant base on which the whole story is built. “Lady Bird” is a wonderful, artistic reminder that everyone – at least in small part – is a byproduct of how and where they were raised. No matter where she lands, Lady Bird will always bear signs of her California roots, her dysfunctional yet loving family and her innocent high-school memories. By the end of the movie, we all are reminded of how we have been shaped by our own experiences.