AFF: 'Lady Bird' is an Achievement
Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is a modestly triumphant achievement. Lady Bird plays like a pop album, a poetic collection of vignettes each celebrating the passion, sensitivity, confusion, and confidence of teenage girlhood. Gerwig has herself compared her movie to Outkast’s “Hey Ya,” an anthem that is infamously dance-inducing until you actually study the lyrics and wonder when you started crying. As the film moves from scene to scene, through clumsily handled milestones and adolescent restlessness, I found myself in total emotional surrender to Gerwig’s immaculate direction. Lady Bird will certainly make you laugh, even more so than Gerwig’s earlier films Mistress America or Frances Ha, but it will also leave you cry-dancing in your seat.
Lady Bird follows an 18 year old girl trying to survive her last year in high school and escape her boring hometown for a prestigious Eastern university (“But not Yale, because [she] probably couldn’t get in.”) In many ways it follows the same tropes of other coming-of-age movies, like the quest to lose one’s virginity, the breakup of friendships, and unwarranted school suspensions. Still, Gerwig is able to inject enough truth and humor into all of these situations to help them feel new while still preserving their relatability. The core questions faced by the maturing Lady Bird are classic but never trite. What is my role in my community? In my family? Where do I fit in?
As an audience of any coming-of-age comedy, the instinct can be to detach ourselves from the sheer awkwardness on screen. I can point and laugh and tell myself I would never date a musician who carries around a Howard Zinn book everywhere he goes, but Saoirse Ronan makes that puppy love look so real that you’re forced to feel the heartbreak and laugh at the relatability of it all. Ronan is what Roger Ebert might call an “empathy machine,” an artist so adept at her craft that it’s impossible not to root for her even when she’s falling on her face. Her lead performance is, as always, skillfully unpretentious and delightful to watch and likely to be the best of her prolific career so far. Ronan is just so funny as Christine McPherson, the titular teenager who renames herself in her quest to figure out who she is. While Lady Bird’s antics can be misguided and borderline slapstick at times, Ronan always plays the character straight, with the arrogance and wherewithal that only a teenager with no life experience can have. The whole movie is founded on this notion: it’s funny because it’s true.
Greta Gerwig loosely based Lady Bird on the story of her own senior year of high school and move to Barnard College in New York, which is probably why it feels so relevant and honest. To its credit, Lady Bird is not a film that relies heavily on nostalgic tactics. While the setting of the film in the year 2002 is fairly unmistakable, time is only relevant to a few minor plot points and gags. The characters we see on screen and the world they live in are timeless (with the exception of a brief Justin Timberlake needle drop). Lady Bird’s central problem is so far-reaching and genuine even when Gerwig’s voice is unabashedly individual.