The praise for Lady Bird deserves to start with a single detail. At two points during the movie, the song “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band plays as part of integral emotional moments. It’s a bonding for Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), something that gets them into the same emotional space. It’s not just what a perfect period detail that is, but what it says about the ethos of this movie.
Dave Matthews Band is not cool. Steven Hyden talks about this at length a little more (I’m pulling this idea from him but it stood out so much I had to repurpose), but Dave Matthews Band is not the kind of band that associates with having the kind of music taste that people in teen indie movies want to have, usually opting for the references points of what people in their 30s think is cool.
But it’s absolutely the kind of music a character like Lady Bird would be into in that year in that time. Lady Bird chooses to make sure its main character feels real rather than turning her into some icon of cool, to find a reality that grounds her rather than an attempt to impress the aesthetic.
With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig hasn’t necessarily blazed a new path, but simply made an exemplary version of a classic story by sticking to what feels real to her, by sticking to a rawer truth. The result ends up being a supremely confident debut, a warm film with a ton of life and a keen eye for those little human interactions.
Lady Bird follows Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), known as “Lady Bird” the name she gave to herself. It’s a coming of age story in Sacramento in Lady Bird’s senior year, 2002-03. Lady Bird wants nothing more than to get out of Sacramento and to the East, to New York where she thinks culture is, and away from her overbearing mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf).
And that’s your premise. Gerwig wanted a picture in the mold of The 400 Blows or Boyhood and in movies like that, the premise by necessity needs to be thin. You need room to expand and breathe and find all the little tangents that life goes down. Coming-of-age is a genre that functions as collage, all the little bits pulling together into a larger snapshot.
It’s about the people, first and foremost. Lady Bird is really great about capturing the deep flaws within people who are fundamentally good, not ever letting it diminish who they are and still letting what shines about them shine, both through writing and performance.
Saoirse Ronan takes the lead here and continues to prove that she’s one of the best young Hollywood stars. Her Lady Bird performance ranges from deliberately affected, trying to be something she’s not (a side-splitting moment as she tries to slide up on Lucas Hedges’ Danny), to achingly raw, cutting through the problems of teenagedom and learning who you are with a single question. It’s a truly great performance, one I hope gets the proper attention come Awards time.
But just as good is the character on the page she’s given. Lady Bird is the kind of character only the best coming-of-age movies fine. She’s absolutely nuanced, an intelligent and thoughtful girl capable of being cutting and selfish. Navigating the line is difficult, but Lady Bird never strays into her being unlikable or unrealistically good. She’s a person, Gerwig has created someone who feels real and who helps us understand the navigation of a difficult time in life. It’s not that it’s not angst, but it’s the kind of angst people actually feel.
You could easily write similarly about everyone in this movie, there’s a deep bench of extraordinarily well-written characters performed by great actors. Lucas Hedges has an Oscar in his future, let me tell you.
The other one who deserves to be singled out is Laurie Metcalf, playing Lady Bird’s mother Marion. In a way, this is her story too. Marion is coming to grips with her child moving on and with the difficulty of realizing that you have no way to actually grapple with the person your child is becoming. Metcalf does such a wonderful job of letting everything bubble just under the surface, of layering all her lines with the subtext and giving a really knock-out performance.
It’s easiest to talk about all the dramatic elements here, all the realizations and the grappling and the good and bad people. But Lady Bird succeeds because it weaves a warm sense of humor into the whole proceedings. Always good-natured and always ebullient, think the contributions that Greta Gerwig made to the work of Noah Baumbach without his inherent darker cynicism. There’s a lot of great little moments and asides, those that make you smile and those that make you sink into your seat knowing the horrifying embarrassment from your own life that you can map onto the experience.
Look, I’m just saying that I also tried to feel smart by reading a copy of The People’s History of the United States in high school and I didn’t get that shit until last year. So I feel you Kyle (Timothee Chalamet).
And hey, Gerwig’s handling of all this is helped by the fact that Lady Bird is an incredibly finely made picture. A film that is handsomely shot, well-edited, and absolutely drenched in great period detail (given that we can now make movies in periods I lived through).
I also just have to appreciate any movie honest about financial struggle. Not making it a point, not showing “one bad day poverty” as some deep lamentation or some noble endeavor. Just there, just a part of it, just an extra obstacle to pushing through the month. Having grown up that way, I really appreciate the way Lady Bird conveys it.
Lady Bird is the kind of film that makes you excited to see the next one from an artist. A film that’s absolutely lovely, wonderfully true, a film that feels so specific that everyone can relate.