Following her co-director credit on 2008’s Nights and Weekends, Greta Gerwig goes it alone directing Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird. A lovingly observed, pitch perfect coming-of-age comedy, Gerwig’s warm, astute account of the end of adolescence is a stunning solo debut.
High school senior Christine (Ronan) – now insisting that she is called ‘Lady Bird’ – is intelligent, frustrated and dreaming of escaping to college. Fans of Julia Stiles in 10 Things I Hate About You and Thora Birch in Ghost World and American Beauty will be right at home with Christine, very much in the stable of wise-beyond-their-years, gobby teen malcontents. Part of the film’s ineffable charm is that it is as much a tribute to that slew of early-noughties teen movies as it is a paean to high school.
Gerwig – who would have been Christine’s age in 2002 – nails the look and feel of that oft-derided period of nu metal and baggy jeans. Period detail will only get you so far, but Lady Bird has buckets of heart too. Depicting the waning self-involvement of late adolescence, it offers glimpses into the tribulations of the lives of secondary characters while maintaining focus on Christine’s personal crises. While our heroine frets about college applications, she is only semi-cognisant of her father’s looming redundancy.
And when her first boyfriend Danny (a sweetly charming Lucas Hedges) breaks her heart when she catches him making out with another guy in the toilets, it takes her the better part of an act before she realises that, in their conservative Sacramento community, he’s probably going through a hard time too. In a lesser film, Christine’s emotional self-involvement would come across as conceited, but in Gerwig’s hands, it’s an authentic observation on the adolescent journey beginning in self-obsessed solipsism and ending (hopefully) in emotional literacy.
Lady Bird is uninterested in contriving a crisis to drive its story – there’s no love of her life to ask to prom, no ugly duckling makeover, just the day to day grind of minor high-school problems. Each seems like Armageddon at the time but quickly fade as the next seeming crisis looms. It’s a cycle beautifully illustrated by Christine’s habit of inscribing her current beau’s name on her wall, only to neatly cross it out when he falls out of favour.
At the centre of it all is Christine’s fractious relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf). The film opens as it closes, with mother and daughter bickering about college aspirations. Again, Gerwig’s observations have laser-point precision in their depiction of people who love each other deeply but drive each other up the wall. And Metcalf’s tearful, frantic drive round an airport car park is a heartbreaking rendering of the loving grief that parents and children cause each other. Bad high school films are a dime a dozen, but when done right, teen cinema can feel epochal. Lady Bird is one such example.
Christopher Machell | @Dr_Machell