US (2017) Dir. Greta Gerwig
Sometimes, one finds themselves overwhelmed by the hype of something that instead of seeing what all the fuss is about, they are actively put off by it. Lady Bird is a film I’ve avoided watching due to how it was deified to the point of distraction when it came out, but as it was on TV last night, I finally gave in.
In 2002, 17 year-old Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), preferring to be called “Lady Bird”, is in her final year of high school in Sacramento but wants to go to college in the more cosmopolitan New York. Neither her grades nor her family’s finances can make this possible for her, creating tension between Lady Bird and her dogmatic mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), whilst her father Larry (Tracy Letts) tries to keep the peace.
Over the course of the year, Lady Bird experiences all the highs and lows a teenager goes through – from falling in love to falling out with her friends, turning 18 and getting a job, to going off the rails. The relationship that seems most irreparable out of all the ones damaged is that between Lady Bird and her mother, when the two need each other more than they care to let on, but neither also wants to compromise.
For a film lauded as a paradigm-shifting masterpiece, there are a lot of clichés in Lady Bird. Writer-director Greta Gerwig has insisted that despite the semi-autobiographical tag attached to her film, nothing featured in it actually happened to her in real life, but is rooted in the world she grew up in. This leads me to surmise that American teenage life is exactly like it is depicted in the movies, as every coming-of-age story is the same.
The only thing that separates Lady Bird from all the other films is its “indie” sensibilities, no surprise since Gerwig is the current darling of the US indie scene. This gives it an earthiness the others lack, and eschews being hopelessly twee and homogenised just to get mainstream audiences onside, but unfortunately this doesn’t mean the content is equally fresh or challenging either.
Gerwig gets off to an interesting start with Lady Bird and Marion both shedding tears to an audio recording of Steinbeck’s Grapes Of Wrath whilst driving, seemingly in a space of mutual peace. Literally moments later, they are screaming at each other over the issue of her education, ending with Lady Bird throwing herself out of the moving car and sustaining a broken arm.
After this, it is all familiar territory. Lady Bird attends a Catholic school with best friend Julie Steffan (Beanie Feldstein), a dumpy girl with no other friends (a role Feldstein essentially reprises in Booksmart). They join the school theatre group, through which Lady Bird meets Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges) and falls for him, but the relationship doesn’t last when she makes a shock discovery, bringing out a meaner Lady Bird.
Julie and the theatre group are summarily abandoned and Lady Bird falls in with school bad girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), as a means to get close to brooding cynic Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a new age slacker who hates everything. This change in attitude in Lady Bird bleeds over into her family life, where the arguments are more aggressive and personal, and Lady Bird’s selfishness reaches new heights, just as her father loses his job.
With both apparently suffering from schizophrenia, Lady Bird and Marion constantly flit from convivial to dyspeptic within the same conversation, usually over trivial things. The key seems to be a lack of communication in the sense of not saying what they should, and saying what they shouldn’t. Yet, since both are so stubborn and oblivious to the other’s triggers, honesty is the only approach they know, hence this endless cycle of love you/hate you moments.
Maybe it is because I am an old British male I can’t relate to a lot of the content here, but something about Hollywood movies that they feel compelled to make every teenager in them so utterly obnoxious that they are ultimately dislikeable. That is not to say that British kids are saints in comparison, but even by the end when the expected redemption comes, I still found it hard to feel anything for Lady Bird, and sympathised a little more with her mother.
However, this is not a reflection of the performances which are the films’ strongest asset by far. Saoirse Ronan may be an Irish girl but her American accent is spot on, as is the body language in replicating the affectations of US teens. I may not have warmed to Lady Bird as a character but through Ronan I at least believed her when she screamed, when she cried, when she has happy, even when she was insufferably petulant.
Laurie Metcalf was a brilliant foil for Ronan, as the strict mother who believed she was doing the right thing without knowing what that was. Of the two, she was easier for me to understand since she had to stay realistic about what the family could afford versus Lady Bird’s lofty aspirations. Granted, Marion should have listened to her daughter rather than dismiss the idea outright, but we could sense this was more out of losing Lady Bird than denying her a golden opportunity.
Due to Greta Gerwig’s indie darling status, this is exactly the sort of film I would expect from her – decidedly quirky but not overtly so. She is confident in this debut but far from finding her voice. The narrative structure is more a series of quick vignettes, not helped by the choppy editing, with too many important moments happening off screen without explanation.
Now I’ve watched it, I admit Lady Bird is a decent film but not the masterpiece others have hailed it as. Maybe I’m not in the right demographic or geographical location to get what they did from it, but I didn’t hate it, which was my main concern.