Thank you, independent cinema for helping purge terrible blockbusters out of my short-term memory. I appreciate the continuous commitment to tell smaller, character-driven stories. They calm my troubled mind and make me remember movies weren’t created to turn my brain into a pulpy liquid mass.
“Lady Bird” is an excellent little character piece—a small, intimate coming-of-age story that doesn’t feel all original but still excels, thanks to fantastic direction and an exceptional cast. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is a teenager entering her senior year at Catholic school and itching to break free of her comfort zone. Her home life is somewhat constricting, due to financial difficulties. Her mother (the great Laurie Metcalf) is working double shifts to make ends meet while her father (Tracy Letts) goes through a mid-life employment crisis.
She dreams of getting out of boring Sacramento after graduation and going to a liberal arts college on the East Coast. It is a challenge due to a less-than-stellar scholastic commitment and lack of funds to afford out-of-state tuition. Like most independent film, high-school protagonist Lady Bird is super-quirky. Fortunately, she’s not nearly as affected or as painfully rendered as Ellen Page’s Juno. Writer/director Greta Gerwig successfully achieves a fresh blend of angst and apathy with Lady Bird. She’s an extremely likable character and still remains sympathetic when making terrible, selfish decisions.
As she winds through her last year of high school, she finds romance and heartbreak with a drama-club cohort, struggles to understand her mom’s Draconian parenting style and deals with the consequences of some questionable judgement calls. Lady Bird yearns for much more than life is currently providing her, and she is willing to do anything to make it a reality. So she lies to teachers about grades, lashes out at them and even ditches her best friend to increase her social standing.
High school is a tumultuous time and Gerwig manages to make the socially awkward gauntlet feel genuine and appropriately heavy—those anxiety-inducing days of wanting to fit in while still searching for self-discovery. The thing about so many high-school movies is how overblown they are. Yes, the melodramatic moments of teenager years often feel like life and death when living them, even when they rarely are. A lot of filmmakers take a grand approach, and use swelling music and overblown performances—not “Lady Bird.” It’s grounded in a way that feels unique.
So much of Lady Bird’s likability is due to Saoirse Ronan, who delivers a masterful performance and one of the most realistic depictions of a teenager ever put to film. She captures manic energy of an age where things can go from zero to frenzy in a matter of minutes. The character is likable in a way that so few teenage protagonists ever achieve. It creates a relationship with the audience and makes what happens to her matter. But Gerwig steers the material away from melodrama. Just when we think a big emotional confrontation is coming, she takes her foot off the gas and denies the character and audience catharsis.
It’s the sum of small, deliberate choices that elevates “Lady Bird” above other movies in the genre. Gerwig avoids the ornate and prefers a flat presentation of well-written characters.
The material isn’t anything new. We’ve all seen coming-of-age stories and teen angst, but “Lady Bird’ feels like it’s own take on the genre. It manages to add something to the discussion by creating some interesting dynamics. I found myself oddly invested in the protagonist’s journey, and interested to see where some of her more questionable choices would lead. A small part of me was disappointed of how few consequences there were. Lying, cheating, betrayal and other poor character moments never really lead to anything terrible. In the end, Lady Bird kind of gets everything she wants. The sum of both her good choices and bad ones amount to a positive outcome. It’s like she is immune to the impacts of karma.
Other than some minor gropes, I found the film utterly charming. It’s a well-written, well-directed independent drama with a wonderfully realized central character.