OnScreen Review: 'Lady Bird'

Ken Jones

  • OnScreen Chief Film Critic

I love Star Wars, superheroes, epic sci-fi, and blockbusters as much (maybe even more) as the next typical 30-something American male when it comes to movies. I’ve loved movies ever since I was a little kid growing up in the 80s. A seminal moment in my movie-viewing came when I got a Netflix subscription over a decade ago. It dramatically expanded what was available for me to see and experience; I love the variety of movies that are available now. I’ve found that I can enjoy just about anything in any genre now. The one thing I value and appreciate more than just about anything in film these days is when a film is personal. When a film is personal, it provides a glimpse of the world that I have never been to or a different perspective than my own. I think this is what people mean when they say that a director, writer, or actor has a distinct voice.

Almost from the first moment I encountered her in a movie, I thought Greta Gerwig was one of those people with a distinct voice. Damsels in Distress was the first time she really stood out to me. Since then, two Noah Baumbach films only further cemented my impression of her talent, Frances Ha and Mistress America. Both of those films she also co-wrote with Baumbach, and made people wonder just how much of those films and her amazing characters in both films belonged to her rather than Baumbach. With the arrival of Lady Bird, of which Gerwig is writer and director, I think it is safe to say that she was integral to those Baumbach films.

Lady Bird is a semi-autobiographical story from Gerwig in her directorial debut. From what I have read, none of the story is directly lifted from her life, but I do know that she is from Sacramento, where the film takes place, and she has previously talked about how she had a delayed appreciation for her hometown. And if you have seen Gerwig’s performances in Frances Ha or Mistress America, it is impossible to see Saoirse Ronan’s lead performance, hear her delivery, and not hear Gerwig’s voice come through.

The film feels like a love letter to Gerwig’s hometown, opening with a quote from another notable Sacramentonean (Sacramentean? Sacramentoite???), Joan Didion: “Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento.” This coming of age story, set in 2002, focuses on the life of Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Ronan) and her senior year of high school and slightly into her freshman year of college. It’s full of humor, emotional truth, and heart.

The film also focuses on the Christine’s relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), in one of the most realistic depictions of mothers and daughters I’ve ever seen in a film. Every relationship between a parent and teenager different, but almost all of them have some similarities. For the teenager, there is the angst and the desire to be your own person and butting up against the rules the parents have laid down. For the parent, there is the balancing act of giving this blossoming adult the right amount of space but still having authority and responsibility for them.

It’s a naturally caustic period, though hardly ever entirely always adversarial. This is what makes the relationship between Ronan and Metcalf’s characters so real and genuine; they can switch from being at each other’s throats in one moment and on a dime they are both marveling at how beautiful a dress looks. They’re both strong personalities and their relationship exists on a spectrum and things shift wildly day to day, sometimes moment to moment.

There is also a lot about Christine’s life as a senior attending an all-girl’s Catholic private school involved in the story and her desire to get out of Sacramento. Hoping to increase her chances of getting into east coast schools with more activities, she joins the school play, a joint production with the all-boys school. It’s there that she falls for Danny (Lucas Hedges). Later on, she falls for another guy, a musician archetype name Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), who plays guitar, reads Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, and fancies himself a pseudo-intellectual. She also slowly grows apart from her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and bonds with one of the richer students, Jenna (Odeya Rush). Their friendship throws in some class shame into the picture, as Christine pretends to be from a more affluent part of town than she is. Her father (Tracy Letts) losing his job adds further stress at home.

Ultimately, though, the beating heart of this story rests with Christine and her mother. Ronan is an actress who has grown up before our eyes, first breaking through as young Briony in 2007’s Atonement. A decade later, she has emerged as one of the most talented young actresses in the world and this is almost sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance. Speaking of the Oscars, I have no hesitation in stating that I think the Best Supporting Actress should be shut down and the award handed to Laurie Metcalf at this point, who gives one of the best performances of the year as Christine’s mother. It’s a smart, layered, emotional, nuanced, and note perfect performance.

Star Wars, the latest Marvel movie, the big new animated film, and others all have their built-in audiences. When a film like Lady Bird comes along, it deserves to find an audience. It’s exciting to be able to champion a film like this. You want to tell others to find time to see it, to skip the so-so sequel to a holiday movie and check this out instead. So much junk gets released and seen by a wide audience that when a film like this comes along, you want to promote it and tell other people about it. Lady Bird is a tremendous debut from a writer/director coming into her own. It has two outstanding central performances, has a personal touch to it, and is an ode to hometowns, but Sacramento specifically. It’s the kind of film I want more of from Hollywood.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars