One of my favorite films of 2016 was 20th Century Women. I’m a sucker for these social/cultural concept pictures that have a big cast, all with issues. They transport me back to my youth. Lady Bird is cut from the same celluloid and although it doesn’t take me all the way back to my boyhood, it comes close. The problem for me is I never came of age, so when I see all these coming of age films and identify with just about everything in them, I’m confused. But I digress.
Greta Gerwig played Abbie in 20th Century Women. She took it upon herself to explain to Jamie, the young son of Dorothea (Annette Bening) some of the basic facts of life; of course from a girl’s point of view. Lucky guy.
In Lady Bird we have Greta Gerwig again, but this time as writer/director. Her protagonist is Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who feels trapped in her Catholic Sacramento high school, lives on the wrong side of the tracks, and has her attitude set on attending college far, far away. Lady Bird is the name bestowed on her by herself.
Her best friend and ruiner of dreams is her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). The film opens with them lying side by side in the same bed. There’s an amazing scene in a car listening to the last few sentences of “Grapes of Wrath” via book on tape. Both cry. Not moments later they are discussing colleges and when Lady Bird indicates she wants to get out of California, her mother has a fit. Lady Bird abruptly ends the discussion by opening the car door and jumping out while traveling at a high rate of speed.
That explains the pink forearm cast she sports for the next quarter of the film. And that’s how this film is unpacked. Again and again we get snapshots of the story, as if one is turning pages of a book, but it’s right there on screen one scene after another that adds up to the movie. We’ve seen this technique before, but seldom is it done with such skill and with so many characters that move in and out of Lady Bird’s life whether she likes it or not.
We see the usual high school drama. Wishing they looked like other girls, wondering what it takes to be cool, hoping boys will choose them. Ms. Gerwig extends it to the neighborhoods and even the homes. Lady Bird sees her dream home and wishes she could live there. Later on she is escorted right to the front door by a bright young boy, Danny (Lucas Hedges) who is bringing her to his grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner.
Lady Bird was the miracle baby her mother thought she’d never have. As a result she has an adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), that is we think he’s adopted. The story doesn’t dwell on it. Miguel has a wife. Some things are just a little bit askew, and in a good way. Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) is an engineer type in a company that’s failing and her mother works at the hospital in some sort of psychological help role. Ms. Gerwig doesn’t feel compelled to tell us everything, which is how it is in real life. Her father seems to get her and supports her big dream of attending college on the east coast.
Despite the friction with her mother the still manages to have conversations that only a mother and daughter can have. Like, when is it the right time to have sex? Which of course was brought up after Lady Bird loses her virginity to one of the school’s bad boys who smokes his own hand rolled cigarettes and is trying to opt-out of the economy.
This passage from the screenplay is between Lady Bird and the high school counselor discussing a strategy for selecting a college. It’s a spot on example of what Lady Bird’s life is like day in and day out.
Just as with the particles of visuals, we get fragments of music to go along them in Jon Brion’s (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) soundtrack. Twenty-three individual compositions ranging from seventeen seconds to the closing track which is five minutes and ten seconds. I love the looping, jigsaw approach he has taken to the film. Fits Lady Bird perfectly. Mostly slow, sad and brooding with moments of reflection. My kind of score.
We can identify with wanting to get out of Sacramento, everyone wants to leave their hometown. But there are gaps. The religious school choice doesn’t really show up anywhere else in the film, especially not in the family scenes. Her situation is not great, but it’s not dire. She has friends and makes them as well. Is this just normal teen angst?
The film has been nominated for four Golden Globes including Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) as Lady Bird for Best Actress. She carries the film from cut to cut. Funny and determined, she sells the eccentricity of the picture with ease, and when called on to make the metamorphosis to adulthood, she makes it look like the time is right. I breathed a sigh of relief in the final frames, for throughout the entire film I worried for her sanity and later on her safety. I cared about her.
Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother got the Best Supporting Actress nod. It is truly a mother/daughter focused story and if Ms. Metcalf was not this strong it might have been passed over for Best Musical or Comedy nomination.
Ms. Gerwig took the fourth one for Best Screenplay, but was denied Best Director recognition. It’s tough to get both but I think the strongest of the two properly won out. It’s refreshing to see a picture with young people not constantly on cell phones. Where things are slowed down and we see lives played out in human time instead of social media time. It’s a real cinema experience.
Jon Brion’s score on Spotify
I would recommend this film to anyone.
My Podcast of this review.
Images courtesy of Scott Rudin Productions, Entertainment 360 and IAC Films