Lady Bird is a soon-to-be cult classic filled with quickfire quips and micro-consumable sequences.
Written and directed solely by esteemed indie darling and Baumbach collaborator Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is the culmination of her working style so far and proves her charm offensive to offbeat audiences. ‘I just want to live through something,’ the central teen - real name Christine, but self-proclaimed Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) - says early on when the Grapes of Wrath audiobook concludes, before arguing with her mother and then rolling out of the car suddenly, breaking her arm in the process. The whimsical statement and following melodrama epitomises the heroine’s certain, yet ever-changing and conflicting opinions. Gerwig's script is fizzing with both these one-liners and very human conversations, characters overlapping one another in argument and in tandem. It's an absolute winner.
On the receiving end of the teenager’s niggling wanderlust are three main objects in the film: her mother, her Catholic school, and her home city, Sacramento. Her mother is played by Laurie Metcalf with searing, sharp put-downs of her much-loved daughter. Metcalf and Ronan, who plays the titular character, are the key performers in this showcase of female talent. It is Ronan’s most enjoyable part in an already distinguished career, more so than her other Oscar nominated lead role in Brooklyn (2015). Her eccentricity in the role is not unlike Gerwig’s own acting, and complements the funky pink hair, glacial blue eyes, peculiar dress sense, and acne scars in the creation of a blossoming teenage calamity. While Ronan is a success in the role - her comedy a pure joy and central to the film’s charm - Metcalf is the star performer, juggling dry humour, maternal passive aggression, and emotional clout. The climax of her character arc is the most mesmerising, silencing scene in the entire movie; the stillness and patience of the scene is a stark contrast from the fast-moving, teen lifestyle depicted before it.
The joint premise of Catholicism, high school, and Sacramento provides plenty of stimulus for an artist with Gerwig’s playfulness. They are all embedded in her own personal history, although she has declared the film to be non-autobiographical. Whatever the basis for her inspiration, she laces the film with subtle motifs and repeated references, the result being an environment which feels very much lived in. There are Sisters (the religious type) discussing Kierkegaard and informing frisky students at dances to stay ‘six inches for the Holy Spirit’, Fathers (again, the religious type) bursting into tears while teaching theatre class, and a delightfully quaint bedroom, in which Lady Bird etches, and subsequently strikes out, the names of two quirky teen heartthrobs, Danny (Lucas Hedges) and Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). The small details enrichen an already cult-worthy film, and it shall be rewatched by many over and over again.
The politics are sprinkled throughout this feel-good feature, with 9/11, abortion, and the danger of mobile phones earning repeated mentions. However, with Gerwig receiving only the fifth female Best Director nomination in Oscar history, and in the wake of mass sexual assault allegations, the handling of the teenage relationships is in keeping with the times. Danny, the first boyfriend, announces to Lady Bird, ‘I respect you too much to touch your boobs,’ in a safe, post-Weinstein manner. Good on you, Danny, proving the benefits of self-restraint by being deserving of your girlfriend’s love. Spoiler: he actually turns out to be gay. Another political checkpoint ticked, and in underplayed fashion. Kyle, boyfriend number two, reads Harold Zinn, only smokes self-rolled cigarettes to spite the corporate economy, and is aloof to the popularity game of high school in a way that makes him ten times cooler. But, he turns out to be a pretentious douche (who knew?). Even the sweet, depressed father (Tracy Letts) and the mysteriously Latin brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues, another neat political tick), play backseat roles throughout. The women are the focus - Ronan, Metcalf, Gerwig and more - and they dazzle.
To zone in on one minor flaw, Gerwig’s headline-grabbing direction rushes some moments, especially in the first half. The runtime is a minor miracle at 94 minutes, and something I celebrate in the modern era of overindulgence, but the original draft penned by Gerwig was supposedly 6 hours worth of script. There is a hectic year of teenagehood squeezed in the film, but it loses out on lasting impact because of the whirlwind pace. Montage, after montage, after montage, of friendships, and relationships, and theatre rehearsals. I lost count, but there may have been fifteen montages by the end. It all slows down to a surprising epilogue, and the quick start is one to embrace more having seen the eventual coming-of-age, but, on first watch, the early build-up is not given the necessary time to be memorable.
The script, though, is an undeniably remarkable work of originality. It is bound to nestle into the hearts of audiences, and define the hairstyles, fashion, and idiolects of more impressionable, trendy teens, like Juno (2007) and The Breakfast Club (1985) before it. The two major performances of Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf are then the crucial components in making Lady Bird an early, career defining work for the marvellous Greta Gerwig.