Director: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott
Runtime: 1 hr 34 mins
Rating: M18 (Nudity and Sexual Scene)
Released By: UIP
Official Website: https://www.facebook.com/ladybirdmovie/
Opening Day: 22 February 2018
Synopsis: In LADY BIRD, Greta Gerwig reveals herself to be a bold new cinematic voice with her directorial debut, excavating both the humor and pathos in the turbulent bond between a mother and her teenage daughter. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) fights against but is exactly like her wildly loving, deeply opinionated and strong-willed mom (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse working tirelessly to keep her family afloat after Lady Bird's father (Tracy Letts) loses his job. Set in Sacramento, California in 2002, amidst a rapidly shifting American economic landscape, Lady Bird is an affecting look at the relationships that shape us, the beliefs that define us, and the unmatched beauty of a place called home.
“Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento” – so goes the Joan Didion quote that fills the opening screen, right before we see our titular character (played by Saoirse Ronan) sleeping face-to-face with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). They are in a motel while touring college campuses, and the next scene has them sharing tears over an audio version of ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ while Marion is driving, right before getting into a heated argument that culminates in our Lady Bird throwing herself out of the vehicle.
There is something delightfully honest and humourous about those first few minutes of writer/director Greta Grewig’s filmmaking debut, and aside from a somewhat unfocused first act, ‘Lady Bird’ largely manages to remain genuine, funny and poignant throughout. Inspired by Grewig’s own memories of growing up in Sacramento, California, the film is a coming-of-age story of its teenage protagonist whose real name is Christine McPherson, an artistically inclined 17-year-old going on 18 determined to assert an identity separate from that of her parents. She’s therefore invented her own nickname, claiming that it is her given name because she gave it to herself.
It’s not difficult to guess that Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother is the core dynamic of the entire film. To put it simply, they argue as fiercely as they love each other, and that push-pull dynamic is evident in every single encounter they have. Most crucially though, their quarrels revolve around which college Lady Bird should go to the following year: whereas she wants a place at an East Coast liberal age college, her mother has her set on attending a local community college in order not to put further strain on their family’s finances. To be sure, Marion isn’t being selfish – she’s had to work double shifts as a psychiatric nurse, especially since Lady Bird’s dad (Tracy Letts) had recently been let go and struggles to find employment.
Her family’s financial situation casts a pall over her self-image at the Catholic school she is attending senior year in. While her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) comes from a similarly humble background, there are the wealthier, and seemingly much more popular, kids at school around whom she feels embarrassed about living on the literal wrong side of the tracks. As per convention, Lady Bird will at some point trade Julie for one of them, Jenna (Odeya Rush), and even commit the classic mistake of thinking that one of their company Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), a charismatic brooder who’s a drummer, truly loves her and therefore is the right one to lose her virginity to. As you probably might expect too, she’ll realise the folly of her ways by the time high-school prom night comes along.
So really, ‘Lady Bird’s’ narrative follows the usual arc of missteps, regrets and learning, but what makes the film stand out is how Grewig respects that experience and portrays it as authentically as it is lived. Obviously influenced by the style of other generational chroniclers that she’s been worked with – most notably Noah Baumbach, with whom she co-wrote his ‘Francis Ha’ and ‘Mistress America’ – Grewig films this in a low-key style that hardly plays up any day-to-day events for more than what they would be worth. To be sure, it does take some getting used to her loose structure, given how quickly scenes change especially in the first half of the movie; but once it settles down into a less harried rhythm, you’ll warm up to how she keeps the proceedings and emotions real and mostly unvarnished.
Grewig also has the support of an excellent ensemble, led by Ronan’s marvellous transformation into a Sacramento teenager circa 2002 when Dave Matthews, Alanis Morissette and clove cigarettes were retro-cool. Her portrayal of Lady Bird is brash, brazen yet unexpectedly touching, and draws you in to fall in love with her character’s anxieties, insecurities and independence. Just as flawlessly cast is stage and TV actor Metcalf, who turns in an extraordinary big-screen performance that perfectly captures the grit and vulnerability of her character. Ronan and Metcalf are dynamite together, reflecting the tense but tender connection between mother and daughter that Gerwig has described as the “love story of the film”.
Truth be told, there’s been much praise lavished upon ‘Lady Bird’ that will certainly raise expectations of how good it is – which arguably after all that hype, left us a tad underwhelmed. It is undoubtedly good, but those looking for it to be refreshing or be swept up by it will very likely be left disappointed. Ultimately, the turns it takes are familiar and it lacks any standout heart-rending moments. But it isn’t farcical, doesn’t have a false note, and is anchored by a fabulous lead performance by Ronan, so even though the specific experience may not be the same, you will identify closely with its portrayal of adolescence and its turmoils. As a first feature though, it is indeed impressive, establishing Grewig as a filmmaking ‘lady bird’ whose voice, style and identity is uniquely distinctive.
(Delightfully honest, humourous and heartwarming, 'Lady Bird' is an impressive writing-directing debut for Greta Grewig)
Review by Gabriel Chong