[This is a repost of my review from the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. Lady Bird opens in limited release tomorrow.]
Over the past decade, Greta Gerwig has established herself as a unique presence in movies. Although she’s played a wide variety of characters, her most memorable performances come when she plays a quirky, cocky, free-spirited person who has to learn some harsh lessons. She brings this attitude to her directorial debut Lady Bird, but rather than coming off like a self-parody, the story feels refreshingly honest, funny, and sharp. The entire cast is excellent with leads Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf showing the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship and how quickly it can switch between love and loathing. Although Gerwig doesn’t turn the coming-of-age dramedy on its head, she has shows she’s a director with something to say.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Ronan) is in her senior year of high school at a Catholic school since her parents Marion (Metcalf) and Larry (Tracy Letts) thought it was too dangerous for her to attend public school after her brother Miguel witnessed a stabbing. Desperate to get away from her hometown of Sacramento and attend school on the East Coast despite her weak grades, Lady Bird greets the world with a sardonic attitude, but starts to fall for classmates Danny (Lucas Hedges) and Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). Throughout her last year of high school, Lady Bird faces new challenges in her relationships with boys, friends, and her parents.
That may seem like standard coming-of-age fare for a teenage girl, but Gerwig makes it feel new and unique. Lady Bird doesn’t seem like an archetype going through twee motions and reaching cathartic conclusions. She seems like a real teenager even if the movie has to rely on an (admittedly funny) overdone gag of her throwing herself out of a moving car just to spite her mother. Thankfully, the movie comes back down to Earth and most of Lady Bird’s relationships feel lived-in and authentic.
Once the script is able to find the humor in real relationships, it hums along with the entire cast giving excellent performances. Rather than trying to create heroes and villains, Gerwig finds the humanity in everyone. Even the popular girl, who is usually reduced down to evil incarnate in these kinds of movies, has a soul and her greatest sin isn’t being mean; it’s being shallow and kind of inconsiderate. That doesn’t make her the worst person ever, and we can understand why Lady Bird would reach out to a girl who has the wealth and connections that Lady Bird, whose family is poor, doesn’t have.
But where the film shines brightest is in the scenes between Lady Bird and Marion. I almost felt at a disadvantage in these scenes because it felt so authentic, but I, being a guy, will never know a mother-daughter relationship, so I’m eager to find out what women think of its portrayal. As an outsider, I still found their interplay exciting and compelling as Gerwig refuses to let them sink into opposite forces or best buddies. There are times when they’re incredibly close and others where they say the most hurtful things possible. It’s electric, and Ronan and Metcalf are more than up to the task.
The film is a little rough around the edges, and it has trouble landing on an ending, but these are minor qualms when the overall story and characters are so strong. Gerwig shows she’s a filmmaker with something to say, and the emotional maturity to take her film to places that may not be high drama, but ring honestly like a parent losing a job or trying to find a new identity. With Lady Bird, she’s established herself as a directing talent in her own right, and I can’t wait to see what she helms next.