Photo via Allstar/A24
We are first introduced to the title character of Lady Bird as she makes her way home from a college tour with her mother. They have the kind of closeness that allows them to cry together while listening to The Grapes of Wrath on tape in the car and, we later learn, go to open houses for fun on Sundays. Soon, however, idle conversation escalates into a heated discussion about Lady Bird’s general dissatisfaction with her current life. Fed up, in an act of melodramatic defiance, she exits the still-moving vehicle.
Jump cut to a close-up of Lady Bird’s arm, now in a pink cast, the only writing on it being F*** YOU MOM. Cue opening credits.
Written and directed by actress Greta Gerwig (best known for playing difficult and complex young women in transitional phases of their own), Lady Bird takes place during the protagonist’s senior year in high school. The film is largely autobiographical and personal, influenced by Gerwig’s own youth and set in her hometown of Sacramento, in 2002, when she herself was Lady Bird’s age.
It’s a textbook coming-of-age story replete with firsts: experimentation with recreational drugs, after-school part-time jobs, loss of virginity. Dreams are frustrations, friendship is both fickle and forever, and college is one big question mark. There’s nothing to do in town but to hang out at an empty parking lot or look at magazines in the grocery store, but there’s a hungry certainty that something must be out there, if you just leave fast enough.
It’s a textbook coming-of-age story replete with firsts: experimentation with recreational drugs, after-school part-time jobs, loss of virginity.
At the center of it all is, of course, Lady Bird, played with equal amounts of plucky sincerity and poise by Saoirse Ronan. (Fun fact: The traces of acne on Lady Bird’s face are 100% Ronan’s — she gamely decided not to cover them up because they felt more authentic.)
What sets Lady Bird apart is the way it handles its characters with care and respect. In a John Hughes movie, parents are well-meaning but clueless, the source of comic relief or conflict. Gerwig subverts this by having Lady Bird’s passage into adulthood be a direct parallel to her mother’s difficulty in letting her go, so she could be on her own and figure herself out.
Background events and seemingly throwaway lines hint at the rich inner lives of secondary and minor players, from her father’s depression to the reason her drama teacher beats them all at “first one to cry wins.” When a first boyfriend turns out to be gay, it is a mortifying experience for the heroine, typically played for laughs before he disappears off the face of the planet. Rarely, if ever, is his side of the story shown, but in Lady Bird, Danny gets an aftermath, and sympathy, and the ability to express his own fears and insecurities.