Review: Lady Bird

Emotionally complex and visually beautiful, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a touching example of flourishing female film-making, writes Lana Crowe

“I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.” Lady Bird is the cinematic brainchild of Greta Gerwig, a coming-of-age tale inspired by Gerwig’s own adolescence in Sacramento, California. Our heroine, Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), negotiates the troubles of Catholic school, young love and living on “the wrong side of the tracks”. It’s been lauded for the complex mother-daughter relationship (the matriarch played skillfully by Laurie Metcalf): its heart lies in the conflict between being grateful for your parents but needing to outgrow them.

Writing about Lady Bird has been difficult, because much of it feels too close to home. It speaks to the deep discomfort of adolescence, in the disparity between who you are and who you want to be. The film captures the too-familiar unease that’s part and parcel with leaving home and planting yourself in a foreign land, and the slow realisation that home – the place you wanted so strongly to leave – makes up much of who you are. I was impressed by the subtlety with which the film negotiates the bread-and-butter problems of life. We’re made aware of mental health without it being about mental health; it’s framed by Lady Bird’s strained relationship with her mother without it taking over the narrative; we understand the relative deprivation of the McPherson family, without being encouraged to pity or scorn them. The context is incidental, just as it feels in many of our lives – it’s just out of focus, precisely as responsibilities are during teenagehood.

I can never help but analyse the audience response as much as the film itself. Cinema is a collective experience, and the energy of the people around you (let alone your own) is an imperative part of a cinema experience, not an unnecessary barrier to the veil of ignorance. When Lady Bird makes a joke early on, that the most exciting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome, my fellow audience members laughed a bit too loudly: I don’t want to underrate the nuance of Gerwig’s dialogue, but I know that this reaction was an expression of their own needy intellectualism, rather than genuine amusement. Every guffaw said “I know what palindrome means”, just like when people laugh during Shakespeare plays to prove they understand. Though it sounds arbitrary, this incident said something to me about the movie. The audience of grown adults, in the City of London on a Friday night, were reverting back to their teenage selves: the deep yearning to impress, the social pressure to fit in, the profound insecurity with their own persona all came flooding back. We were all remembering what it was like to be Lady Bird: five minutes of compelling visuals, dialogue and characters, and the audience was transformed.

Gerwig Ronan
Saoirse Ronan and writer/director Greta Gerwig (Merie Wallace/A24)

Emotionally complex and visually beautiful, Lady Bird captures the bittersweet tone of our sun-drenched memories of adolescence (rose-tinted for those of us not from clement California). It was even comforting to see 2003 as a period piece: primitive mobile phones, headbands and Justin Timberlake’s ‘Cry Me a River’. To class it amongst other comparable movies doesn’t accurately reflect how touching it is: it’s a complex examination of nostalgia, and, though it may be about a teenager, it is thoroughly grown up. It doesn’t gloss over the unpleasantness that is often lacking in films marketed towards women: this is not only an acknowledgement that a woman’s place is cinema is more that as an object of physical admiration or the sidekick who screams “what do we do now?!” to her male counterpart, but also appreciates that women as audience members deserve more too. In Lady Bird, I found a movie about women that does not present itself as exclusively ‘for women’ – finally. Gerwig is only the fifth woman to be nominated in the Best Director category at the Academy Awards, and I can’t help but feel sororal pride in this flourishing and soul-stirring piece of cinematic art.

Lady Bird opens in selected cinemas on 16th Feb 2018, and opens widely across the UK on Friday 23rd Feb 2018.

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