starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges
written and directed by Greta Gerwig
by Walter Chaw Greta Gerwig's hyphenate debut bears the influence of erstwhile collaborator Noah Baumbach's urbane micro-comedies--Hal Hartley's, too, along with some DNA borrowed from Ghost World and Welcome to the Dollhouse for spice. It's a talky domestic drama featuring a precocious, strong-willed iconoclast who has named herself "Lady Bird" (Saoirse Ronan) and is, as a character, the best description of the film that houses her. She's smart but not book-smart and, in the end, not smart enough to avoid having her heart broken by a couple of bad decisions on her way out of senior year in high-school and the great grey beast Sacramento. She tells her first boyfriend, Danny (the already-great Lucas Hedges), that she's from the "wrong side of the tracks," which, when he lets it slip in front of Lady Bird's mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf), obviously hurts Marion's feelings a lot, but she bites her lip. When he does it, he's there to pick up Lady Bird for Thanksgiving at his grandmother's place. His grandmother lives in the nicest house on the other side of the tracks and, to feel better about her life, Lady Bird tells her shallow new "bestie" Jenna (Odeya Rush) that it's Lady Bird's own house. A miserabilist story about the horror of adolescence that is obviously helmed by a first-timer, Lady Bird is redeemed by a cast so sterling that I actually wished the film were longer. It's that kind of movie.
Lady Bird's second boyfriend is a creepy, long-haired proto-punk named Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), whom she espies reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (at a coffee shop, naturally), which is as spot-on as the protagonists of Ingrid Goes West reading Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Both are dangerous for unformed minds, you see, as they tend to nurse them towards the land of Prematurely Over-informed Asshole. The nice touch in Lady Bird is that in the scene immediately following, Lady Bird is reading the Zinn book in bed--a kind of Shop Around the Corner romantic gaslighting we were all guilty of once upon a time, weren't we? (Explanation at least of why I've read more than one Rosamund Pilcher novel.) Meanwhile, Lady Bird enlists her dad, Larry (Tracy Letts), to help her apply for financial aid. She's singularly-focused on getting accepted into an East Coast college, and Ronan does the intensity well. The star of the show, though, is Metcalf, given the task of humanizing a monstrous, passive-aggressive creature: A nurse working double-shifts to support her family and her freshly-unemployed husband, Marion can't seem to resist battering her wilful daughter with her insecurities and disappointments. After getting yelled at for being ungrateful, Lady Bird asks how much it cost to raise her so she could pay it all back and be done with Marion, who says she doubts Lady Bird could ever get a job that paid enough to afford such a gesture. It's brutal--and a testament to Metcalf's skill that we don't hate Marion so much as understand the pain that's driving her.
Gerwig as a director is tentative and self-conscious. Her blocking is stiff and mannered. Her characters move in the wrong direction on screen, so that meaningless little transitional scenes suddenly feel like a horror movie. She may be a more natural screenwriter than director, although Lady Bird doesn't have a whole lot to say except that it's hard to be a teenage girl and hard to be a mom to a teenage girl. Also that home is where the heart is. I like the scene where Lady Bird calls Marion, who has decided to stop talking to her, to tell her that she loves her. It rings true, but I don't respect it very much. I like that Larry navigates the two strong personalities in his life the way he does, because that rings true, too, but it only really is what it is. The entire subplot involving Lady Bird's adopted brother and his girlfriend is superfluous, and the image of her painting over the secret names she's written on her wall as she prepares for the next stage in her life is the sort of symbolic gesture that symbolizes nothing interesting. Lady Bird is as sloppy as it is well-intended. I liked it; I'm already in the process of confusing it with other films. At the end of the day, maybe just watch Harley's Trust instead. That one has the same tang, but its aftertaste lingers.