When it comes to films, some adjectives get thrown around so much they have almost become devoid of actual meaning, morphed into marketing buzzwords. An exception needs to be made for Lady Bird: of all the words one could use to describe Greta Gerwig's directorial debut, “inspiring” is the most fitting of all. Even though the coming-of-age story of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) – or Lady Bird, as she insists everyone calls her – doesn't exactly ring as original, there is much to admire in this exquisite feature.
Lady Bird opens with a scene made very famous by the trailer: Christine and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) driving in their car, tears streaming down their eyes as they listen to the audiobook of “The Grapes of Wrath”. Conversation ensues, and it couldn't be a better paradigm for mother-daughter relationships: what starts as an amicable exchange of opinions turns into a turbulent skirmish, with accusations flying back and forth, until Christine opens the moving car's door in a fit of rage and throws herself out.
The relationship between the two characters is one of Lady Bird's central themes. Christine, a senior high school student, has her mind set on leaving Sacramento for college. She will go anywhere her naiveté suggests there's real life and culture, be it New York or “at least Connecticut or New Hampshire”. Her mum, on the other hand, has her feet nailed to the ground: she's juggling her job at the hospital, her family's precarious financial situation, and a daughter who despite all her love and care is… well, a teenager.
Christine, on the other hand, is going through her last year at a Catholic high school. She's falling in love, dealing with old and new friends, preparing for the end-of-the-year recital, and dreaming about growing up in an environment that gives her the sense of fulfilment, accomplishment and validation she feels her life is lacking. Day after day, two fundamental milestones are getting closer: her eighteenth birthday and her school's prom night.
Prom is probably one of the most recurrent tropes in American films, as it's the perfect event to represent every adolescent character's rite of passage into adulthood. Especially for those who are accepted into universities far from home, prom is a life-changing turning point: a goodbye to friends and family before a new beginning elsewhere. Gerwig crafted a story that tries to touch on all these aspects, involving as many characters as possible to recreate the complexity of developing human relationships. What reportedly started as a 350-page script was condensed into 93 minutes of film, and more than once we're left wishing to learn more about many of the side characters: Christine's unemployed father (Tracy Letts), her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), her first boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges), edgy obnoxious musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and even some of her school's nuns and priests, particularly Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley Henderson).
The risk of stereotyping is high, but Gerwig instilled so much love and passion into Lady Bird's screenplay that every sequence is full of laugh-out-loud situations and brilliant character dynamics, touching moments of true life, and smart reflections on growing up, discovering ourselves and finding a place in the world. All around, it's just awesome film-making. Gerwig's directing style is not particularly elaborated but it's effective, well thought-out, and oozing affection for her own personal work of art. A sweet sequence alternating images of Christine and her mother driving in Sacramento speaks more clearly than a million words about how similar we are to our parents, even though we spend our adolescence distancing ourselves from them as much as we can.
There is no doubt, when seeing Lady Bird, that its screenwriter and director has put all of herself into it; even though the story is reportedly only semi-autobiographical, every second of it strikes as a moment Gerwig personally felt needed sharing, in the same way as a physical urge needs satisfying. The result is a richly crafted comedy that speaks frankly about things we can easily relate to, but we get to explore with much needed originality and on different levels, from different points of view. This won't be unexpected to the fans who followed Gerwig since her beginnings in the Mumblecore movement; as for the general audience, I can't imagine anyone not welcoming it as a pleasant surprise.
What is certainly no surprise is to see Saoirse Ronan absolutely nail her performance. What a joy it is to see her act so naturally and convincingly; her duets with Metcalf (perfect in her part, too) are exceptionally well written and played, achieving rare levels of chemistry and intensity. Award season is holding what many are referring to as this year's Moonlight in high regard: Lady Bird already won a Golden Globe for Best Comedy, and Ronan took home the Best Actress prize. Will there be more joy at the Academy Awards (read our thoughts on this year's nominations here), where Gerwig is also competing for best writing and directing? Gerwig is not as accomplished as a film director as her fellow nominees Nolan, del Toro and Anderson (Get Out director Jordan Peele is another first-timer) and competing for the highest cinematic award alongside those names must feel like a tremendous achievement in itself.
Some have insinuated that much of Lady Bird's glory is due to the resonance given to the #MeToo movement; considering Gerwig is the fifth woman ever nominated for a Best Director Oscar, if anything we can only hope to see that happen more often. It would certainly be difficult to expect audiences not to be influenced by the social context in which they see films. Art and real life have always affected each other: next year, our preferences might be swayed in favour of other themes and genres, and our recognition will go to those who best interpret those sentiments.
Many teenagers will find inspiration in seeing how Christine navigates the tribulations of adolescence, accepting her past and her flaws, and finally stepping into adulthood. If you have a creative spirit, just like Gerwig's counterpart Lady Bird, I suggest you let this film upset you and make you wish “if only I could be just as smart and funny”. Then let it inspire you and show you're only one rewrite away from creating a great work of art that will compete with the very best.
Lady Bird is released on 16th February 2018.
Word by Davide P @Devilmath
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