Lady Bird

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.

7 thoughts on “Lady Bird

  1. Yeah, Lady Bird was one of those instances in which I observed the overwhelming critical acclaim and asked “Really? Out of all the films in 2017, this is the one you all went crazy for?” As you said, it is decent, though it really isn’t the masterpiece that its rabid fans say it is. It doesn’t help that I found neither of the two main characters to be especially likable (I personally felt Marion was the worse of the two given how relentless her insults were), and that really makes revisiting it tougher than it should’ve been. I don’t know what it is about indie talent being unable to write flawed characters, but they really need to work on that weakness if they’re to improve. In the end, I felt The Edge of Seventeen captured what this film was going for far more effectively, so it’s a shame it managed to slip beneath the radar.

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    1. I think I “got” the mother more, partly because of being an older character (modern kids baffle me) but her point of view was the more realistic in having to stay within a tight budget which Lady Bird refused to understand like a spoiled entitled brat, who would throw a tantrum every time she was told, “We can’t afford it”. As someone who never had money, I heard that a lot as a kid and had to live with it. Still do in fact.

      That said, Marion didn’t help her case by being unable not to rise to the insults and firing back in kind, which may be a call back to dealing with an abusive alcoholic mother; she is trying not to be the same with her daughter but is in fact echoing that toxic relationship. Yet this was something which was never expanded upon beyond that one reference, a recurrent problem with this film.

      Something else that bugged me was Lady Bird’s brother – apart from getting away with being a lazy emo twerp, his ethnicity was never explained. Is he a half-brother, step-brother, adopted or what? Him, his girlfriend and Kyle were possibly the worst tropes of the whole film, which is saying something as Lady Bird, Julie, and Jenna were just as bad.

      The head nun was funny as was the PE teacher trying to organise a school play like a football match. But was there anything to the teacher who seemed to favour Julie over Lady Bird for some reason? That was a teased subplot which went nowhere fast.

      So many reviews have said this film was relatable which, as is said in my review, makes me wonder about the US if this a genuine representation of teen life there, or is it just in Sacramento?

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      1. That is fair enough. While I do find Marion the less likable of the two, I have to comment that I didn’t really like how Lady Bird was written either. I commented in my own review that she doesn’t really come across as a real person; she comes across more as what adults think teenagers from the 2000s acted like, but without doing any of the legwork to discover the intricacies. It’s bizarre given that Ms. Gerwig was indeed a teenager during the early 2000s. It might be a case of Ms. Gerwig assuming every teenager thought that way, which, if true, is a rookie mistake when writing younger characters. Also, speaking as someone who is staunchly pro-choice, Lady Bird’s abortion joke directed at that conservative teacher was especially cringeworthy. That alone is enough to cement the movie as a product of its time (although it’s not as bad as other examples I could mention).

        I think expanding on the whole toxic relationship expanding to another generation could have been an interesting route to go down, but the narrative never realizes that and tosses that story beat into the wind. It’s a reoccurring problem with A24 films, I find. They have a strange knack of coming up with interesting ideas only to giddily throw them out for no real reason, which in this case, manifests in the potentially interesting subplots that go nowhere. Critics praised the characters, but I find that they didn’t really stand out (and if they did, it was usually for bad reasons).

        And no, of all the words I would use to describe Lady Bird, “relatable” isn’t one of them. I’m not sure if it’s true with U.K. critics, but I can tell you that American critics are really full of themselves and generally lack the theory of mind necessary for their craft, so in that regard, it makes sense why they’d identify with this film. If you look at IMDb or Rotten Tomatoes, you’ll see that it didn’t translate to audiences giving it universal praise. They liked it, but even then, I kind of get the sense they merely liked it rather than loving it like critics did.

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      2. It’s funny you mention IMDb as that is where I read most of the 10/10 reviews with people claiming how relatable it was. I had to go through three pages before I found a dissenting opinion. And as you can hopefully see from Brittani’s comment below, people in tune with the film do exist! 😛

        Regarding British critics, Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian gave it 5 stars. He is known for liking arthouse cinema but occasionally singing with the choir on Oscar nominated films. Here is the link to his gushing review (you may have to clear a sign up notice first. Just click “do it later” if it pops up) but the real interest is in the reader’s comments below who vehemently disagree with Bradshaw. I guess its more polarising than I thought.

        https://www.theguardian.com/film/2018/feb/15/lady-bird-review-greta-gerwig-saoirse-ronan-laurie-metcalf

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I love Lady Bird, but I also felt like I could really relate to it, as you said you couldn’t. Greta is only a few years older than me so the era she was writing in was something that was familiar and Saoirse Ronan has fast become one of my favorite actresses. I’m glad you at least liked it, even if you didn’t love it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment and female perspective! 😉

      Like I said, I’m not the target demographic geographically, gender wise, or age wise so I’m left to appreciate it as a film at face value which I did.

      I imagine if Americans saw British school based drama like classic kids TV show Grange Hill, it would baffle them too. 😛

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