Artists are cut from a different cloth than most people. For artists, passion and rationality ebb and flow like the tides, so they have manic moments of inspiration before crashing back down to earth. In Lady Bird‘s opening moments, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), the film’s titular Lady Bird, hurls herself out of a moving car. The decision is irrational, impulsive, and laugh-out-loud funny; it also sets the tone for what unfolds over the next 90-minutes.
A highschool senior, Christine embodies the word pretentious. She sees herself as an actor, but she’s not even aware of her school’s annual theatrical troupe; she sees herself as worldly, although she’s grown up in the cultural sinkhole known as Sacramento; she also insists that people refer to her as Lady Bird. Her main hurdle, however, is that she isn’t good at anything. Her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), harps on Lady Bird’s poor grades, and her lack of acting chops land her in the theatre production’s lowly chorus line. The film follows Lady Bird as she navigates high school politics (literally and figuratively), a tough mother, and her budding sexuality all while seeking a way to get accepted into an out-of-state college.
Lady Bird is kind of a dick, and there are plenty of reasons not to like her, but it’s hard not to anyway; her flaws are part of her charm. Our teenage years offer the most freedom we’ve ever had at the time we have the least amount of experience in the real world. Teenagers thinking they know more than adults is a right of passage. At times Lady Bird is earnest, and at others she’s cavalier, but usually she comes off as self-assured during the point in life when she’s starting to figure out who she is. Though I’ve never been a teenage girl, I see shades of teenage me in Lady Bird’s personality. I also see most of my old friends, my neighbours, and my nieces and nephews.
Ronan’s performance goes a long way in making her character’s quirks endearing. With Ronan in the role, Lady Bird’s flaws aren’t bugs — they’re features. Credit must also go to writer/director Greta Gerwig’s killer script. The film is quasi-autobiographical, and Gerwig shows no hesitation over putting her character in unflattering situations. The laughs come hard, they come often, and they come from all directions.
It’s great watching Laurie Metcalf deliver such a fine performance. Like fellow Roseanne alum John Goodman, she’s been stepping into roles and knocking them out of the park for a while. Metcalf’s character Marion comes off like a matronly Terminator — responsible, meticulous, and efficient. Marion thinks long term, and is more concerned about what her family needs rather than what it wants. Lady Bird’s artistic spirit fuels unrealistic wants, causing many personality clashes between the two.
Being a matriarch isn’t easy, and Metcalf has no trouble conveying the burden Marion carries. As an adult I could understand Marion’s reasoning as she argued with her daughter. At the same time, I could relate to Lady Bird’s frustration towards her family. Great drama produces characters whose wants and desires are in conflict with one another. It’s tough to pull off, but when it works the results are devastating. Both Marion and Lady Bird’s growth are tied to the other one not getting what they want. It’s hard watching them butt heads knowing neither one is entirely wrong.
Gerwig sharpened her screenwriting skills on movies like Frances Ha and Mistress America (a great film and a really good one). I’ve had high hopes for Gerwig’s “official” directorial debut, and I’m excited to say that she exceeded all my expectations. Lady Bird isn’t a great film for new director — it’s a great film, period. Gerwig brings a stacked cast, a savagely funny script, and her sharp visual storytelling instincts together to craft a film that shows the polish of a seasoned pro. Lady Bird is not only one of the best films featured at TIFF 2017, it’s one of the best movies of 2017.