If you know me, you know I am an absolute sucker for coming of age films and how they can resonate with both young adults and the parents who raised them. It came with little/no shock to me that Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut would cover this genre, given that her performances have mainly showcased a free-spirit wrapped in cocksureness. Lady Bird (2017) approaches these coming of age tropes head-on and gives them a base of brutal honesty to support sharp and witty dialogue between characters.
While the entire cast contributes to the film, it is certainly the leads, Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf, who act as pillars for the story and prompt a more engaged response from audiences. The movie takes place from 2002-2003 and Ronan stars as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a senior at a Catholic high school who wishes to abandon her hometown of Sacramento, CA and attend college on the east coast despite her low grades. Her yearning to get out of Sacramento and rage toward something as insignificant as grades holding her back motivate Lady Bird’s sardonic attitude towards the world and her family (mainly her mother, played by Metcalf). Couple that with a few boys that Lady Bird starts to fall for and she suddenly finds new challenges in her path, all pertaining to herself, her friends, and her family. It’s built from the same mold of any coming of age story, but Gerwig’s writing and direction give Lady Bird more depth than most protagonists who merely go through the motions to reach some kind of cathartic conclusion before credits roll. Instead, Gerwig reveals the difficulties of Lady Bird’s coming of age and stresses that her maturation has not begun merely because the movie has, but instead assures us that Bird’s life is authentic and has indeed been lived for seventeen years. In other words, nothing here is circumstantial.
The way Lady Bird acts and reacts to characters in her well-lived-in world integrates the rest of the cast wonderfully. Gerwig does not give you clear-cut heroes and villains and it works to the characters’ advantage. Even the “popular girl” isn’t reduced to a Regina George archetype. She’s shallow, for sure, but who isn’t when they’re seventeen? The humanity of these characters makes them feel relatable, but it also puts you in their shoes even if you are not familiar with their situation – such is the case with Lucas Hedges, who has one scene in particular pertaining to his own coming of age that reduced me to tears. It’s a testament to the performances as well as Gerwig’s direction that all of these characters have their own obstacles to overcome, but none compare to the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother Marion.
What holds this movie back for me is the simple disadvantage of not having a mother/daughter relationship growing up. While I felt the purity of the relationship from the performances, I will never know what that dynamic is truly like, which makes me all the more eager to listen to what female colleagues of mine have to say about how they respond to Lady Bird/Marion. As a viewer, I was still fully invested in the loving/hateful relationship between Lady Bird and Marion. Gerwig allows both characters to make mistakes that are irreversible, but it’s all in the name of emphasizing the inevitability of screw-ups, and how life goes on not in spite of them but because of them. Lady Bird and Marion say hurtful things to each other, but as soon as they come across a prom dress to revel in, the scene can pivot on a dime. Ronan and Metcalf show off their range beautifully in these scenes and perfectly encapsulate the idea behind a parent being not only a worst enemy, but a best friend just as easily.
The ending happens rather abruptly and there are some scenes that could be more evenly paced, but these are hardly criticisms when you walk out of the theater wanting to call your mother immediately and tell her how much you love and appreciate her. The story is inspired, the characters are strong, and while Gerwig does not necessarily push the genre forward, Lady Bird has an air of brutal honesty to it that makes it worth your while to sit down and enjoy.
Greta Gerwig shows she belongs in a director’s chair or a writer’s room just as much as she belongs in front of the camera. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf give grounded and altruistic performances along with Lucas Hedges and the rest of the supporting cast. Lady Bird not only perfectly encapsulates the early 2000s (hard to believe we can have period pieces in the early 2000s now), but it also shows a maturity not all coming of age films can deliver. I’m excited to see what Gerwig has next up her sleeve for directing, and I’m anxious to see what Ronan stars in next after receiving such high (and well deserved) praise for her performance here.