Review: Lady Bird

A witty, modern coming of age story, Lady Bird is an assured directing debut from Greta Gerwig, led by a great performance by Saoirse Ronan.

In early 2000s California, Christine McPherson (Ronan) or “Lady Bird” (as she wants to be known) is nearing the end of Catholic high school, and chafes at living in Sacramento, lashing out at home and at school. Her frayed relationship with her mum (Laurie Metcalf) contrasts with her discovery of good boy Danny (Lucas Hodges) and bad boy Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).

Gerwig, an indie film actress, writes and directs, and has noted that elements are derived from her own upbringing. When you watch, you’d be hard pressed to identify this as a first time movie. Gerwig’s sparky dialogue and hilarious scene transitions give it a comedic and speedy feel, and at the same time fills her lead character and cohorts with an authentically millennial, female voice.

This is the first time beyond Boyhood that I’ve seen a film like this in the decade in which I was a teenager, which is perhaps why I took to it quite quickly. Unlike that film however, Christine’s experiences feel both more realistic and mundane – that word might seem negative, but it’s really not what I mean!

It’s a pleasingly natural study of teenagers growing up, preparing to leave home and finding out who they are, and while this sort of film can easily lend itself to drama and anguish, what few scenes there are like this often interspersed or undercut by some great humour.

Gerwig’s direction utilises Sam Levy’s natrualistic lighting for a good looking film with a strong sense of place, Sacramento a sun drenched everytown a world away from most people’s perceptions of California. A largely forgettable soundtrack from Jon Brion doesn’t really impose itself, but then the dialogue is the main focus and it would distract if any more noticeable.

The depiction of Catholicism, through the sphere of the school, is surprisingly sensitive, offering an interesting view into the church’s educational institutions. Teachers and nuns are fleshed out as human rather than archetype, though the kids do largely seem to be going through the motions, as you might expect! It puts the place across as a community connected by faith, as opposed to oppressive, which I found unique compared to similar institutions in other movies.

Ronan’s lead performance is exciting, her flawless American accent only adds to her strong depiction. This character, written for another film, would be the archetypal “acting out” teen girl, but Ronan’s soulful acting and Gerwig’s characterisation mean that ‘Lady Bird’ is both bratty teen and a surpisingly innocent young woman, loathe as she might be to admit the latter.

What makes the character great is Ronan’s ability to present her growing awareness of herself, learning from her mistakes and of the impact her actions have on those around her, for good or for ill, and it’s no surprise she was nominated for an Oscar. It’s exciting to think of what she might do in future.

The other main performance deserving of acclaim comes from Laurie Metcalf as Christine’s mum, the actress portraying a more natural, strict ‘mum’ particularly in her passive aggressive, fraught scenes with Ronan. Their mother-daughter relationship as a result feels very real, especially in scenes where pockets of love or understanding are punctured by one or the others’ arrogance. This controlled, coiled performance is also notable for the few outbursts of emotion, Metcalf embodying a prideful but ultimately loving parent.

In another very naturalistic ‘dad’ performance, like Lion, Tracy Letts is sardonic and comedic, the actor giving the character a stoicism and a hold on reality that everyone around him seems to lack. The other notable roles go to the two boys, each different objects of Christine’s affection and different ends of the scale.

Lucas Hodges continues his run of impressive performances in critically acclaimed films, his Danny epitomising the awkwardness and nerdiness of teenage boys but also the repressive nature of a religious upbringing, with some surprising depth and emotion coming from his relationship with Christine and how it all pans out.

Another awards season darling, Timothee Chalomet, plays the bad boy Kyle with a hilariously douchey twist, as a self righteous kid who believes his own bullshit and can’t see how his class level and outwardly liberal yet extremely idealistic views are exactly what makes him unattractive. Finally, Beanie Feldstein quietly inhabits Christine’s more passive friend Julie, illuminating the shy girl’s angst and desire to leave the former’s shadow.

In essence, this is the sort of film that you might (if you were me) dismiss as an indie that’s not worth your time. However, I highly recommend Lady Bird as a newer, more interesting coming of age parable, and think we’ll see more exciting films from Gerwig and Ronan along the way.

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