Director: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothee Chamalet, Beanie Feldstein, Odeya Rush
Plot: A young senior in a Catholic school (Ronan) dreams of becoming more, despite her family’s humble living situation.
With Lady Bird, I have finally seen all of the award season heavy-hitters of 2018. While Lady Bird is definitely a strong film, it definitely has a weakness in the fact that, out of all of the contenders, this is the film that feels the least essential. While I, Tonya and Darkest Hour were about interesting moments in our history, Three Billboards boasted a thrilling razor-sharp script and Shape of the Water was a directional masterpiece, Lady Bird sits on the side-lines, dazzling in its own right, but never demanding the spotlight. Yet another coming-of-age story about a young teenage girl finding her identity in the world, Gerwig definitely has some strong things to say with her script, but in the rush of awards season, this is the film that will be pushed into the undergrowth.
Perhaps the greatest compliment Lady Bird can be worthy of is that it does exactly what the director Gerwig wanted it to. The goal of Lady Bird was to feel like a glimpse into memory lane, a grasp at the echoes of tormented teenage years. Gerwig never goes for anything overtly fancy with her cinematography. The cameras used pale in comparison to the clean 4K imagery of Shape of the Water and the cinematography purists will flinch at the grain buzzing in the background of every shot. In terms of trickery, the one camera moment that had me nodding in appreciation was a sharp piece of editing, where a mother and daughter driving is spliced together, so the two characters become merged into the same uplifting moment. However, for the most part, Gerwig’s film is all about the script. The rest of the movie stands back and simply lets the dialogue take over. This gives the actors the space to impress the audience with their abilities as performers. Saoirse Ronan is, of course, the star of the show. Ronan has made a career of playing young women with deep emotions burning behind her doe-eyed innocence and here there is nothing different. As mentioned before, the lead character in a coming of age film – an awkward teenager who hasn’t figured out who she is yet – is something done before more times than we can count, but Ronan makes the character feel different. She is endearing from start to finish, which is especially tricky for the actress, as the character does have moments of undeniable selfishness. However, Ronan creates this sense of being in over her head, which makes the character easy to root for, even when we see her losing friends down a rabbit hole, chasing a dream she is only half-sure she wants. Ronan may take the show, but she is surrounded by strong characters. Because Lady Bird is focused solely on her character, they are never quite allowed to properly wow us, but sometimes their position in the backdrop of the story makes their roles so much more powerful. There are lives burning all around us, but they feel so distant regardless. A drama teacher hides emotional baggage. Ronan’s first boyfriend is secretly gay. Lady Bird’s best friend has her own turmoil going on, something that the story or the character never bother to investigate. Best of all are the parents, Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf. Scraping the barrel when it comes to cash, they have the most heart-breaking moments, as they quietly react to the events of the story. Letts is the father, ashamed he cannot provide the life his daughter truly wants. And Metcalf narrowly missed a Supporting Actress award with her superb portrayal of a mother so trapped in her own emotions, she can’t express herself. Sometimes she is a stubborn hateful person, bringing up petty arguments as a way of connecting with her daughter. And sometimes she is the most vulnerable character in the film, taking herself away from a scene to have a breakdown in her car. Again, Gerwig keeps the focus on Lady Bird, so these beautifully emotional moments are only ever an afterthought. And they are so much better because of it.
The writing is just as much to thank for the success of Lady Bird as the performances are. Arguably, they fuel the likes of Ronan, Metcalf and the rest of the talented cast. Gerwig is a truly fantastic writer, especially for young women and the struggles they go through. While this is a story done many times before, it feels unique because of Gerwig’s attention to detail. Most teenager girl stories involving high school are glossy affairs, stitched together with pop culture references, colourful stereotypes and a modern soundtrack. However, Lady Bird feels so much more real, so much more grounded. Even if Lady Bird’s circumstances are unique in themselves (she studies in a Catholic school, she falls for a guitar player, she is ashamed of her poor upbringing), her emotional journey is relatable. You may not agree with her life choices or connect with her specific dilemma, but you understand where her troubles are stemming from. A self-depreciating joke about her homelife gets back to the parents and there is an almighty argument over it. She tells a white lie to get in with the cool kids which is embarrassingly found out. She loses her virginity to a wanker. Gerwig bridges the emotion from Lady Bird to the audience, so we feel every bump in the road. By the end, when Lady Bird has to move out of home and is desperate to feel her mother’s love, we are glued to the screen. Gerwig cuts away from the meaty moments, so the movie purposefully gives us an unsatisfying feeling to everything. We never see the end of arguments, we never find out what happened to that supporting character… but again, it makes the story feel more real. This is life. And that is where Greta Gerwig thrives. Lady Bird might be one of the more inessential films of 2018, but, to the right ears, it could be the most important.
Final Verdict: Lady Bird will be missed by most, because it’s quietly powerful, rather than loudly enjoyable. It should be watched all the same.