Written & Directed by Greta Gerwig
Life is irrational. It just is. Some may live lives sprinkled with star dust, but then there’s the rest of us. And the rest of us tend to live life trying to do the best we can with what we have. As children, we may not fully realize what we have, seeing others with more and wanting that. As adults, we may feel this even more. But it always seems to come back to material possessions, which is not a true measure of happiness. We may often say to ourselves, if only I had that car, then I would be happy. Then we get the car and say to ourselves, if only I had that job, then I would be happy. Then we get the job and say to ourselves, if only I had that house, then I would be happy. There will always be that next thing, but when we peel back the layers of life to unveil the true measures of happiness, the things that really matter, then we may surprise ourselves.
Greta Gerwig has been an indie darling for some time now, mostly for her work with Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, Frances Ha, and Mistress America), but with Lady Bird, she makes her solo directorial debut and does marvelous things with her story and cast. A semi-biographical tale, Lady Bird chronicles the foibles of teenager Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to go by the self-given nickname “Lady Bird”. Growing up in Sacramento, California, Lady Bird finds any way she can to escape, hoping to attend a liberal arts school on the East Coast. She goes through daily life at her all-girls Catholic high school with best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), fighting constantly with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), only to be consoled by her father (Tracy Letts). She finds a boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), but still feels like life has much more to offer. She goes through her days dreading her life, always believing she could have it so much better.
It’s not often that a film connects deeply with my worldview, or for that matter challenges my worldview. These types of films are often the most affecting, and with Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig has crafted a film I connected with on so many levels. Having grown up in Catholic schools, including an all-boys Catholic high school, so many of these things are relatable, but it’s not just the scenario. Gerwig, along with the great cast, is able to draw these characters with great depth of feeling. Saoirse Ronan’s display of angst makes Lady Bird just off putting enough to be charming alongside her truly admirable heart and ambition. This film tip-toes this line throughout the movie, showing us characters who are flawed and endlessly lovable at the same time.
Lady Bird is an annoying teenage girl, but Ronan and Gerwig make it plain to see her good traits and promise as well. Laurie Metcalf as the mother is harsh yet sympathetic. She is a struggling nurse working hard and doing her best to provide for her family. Her strictness and higher standards exist due to love and that is plain to see, even when Lady Bird struggles to see the same. Tracy Letts is quietly effective as the father, seemingly completely different from the mother, and yet also crazy in love with her as well. They work as a team to raise their children how they see fit, complimenting each other in the best way possible. Lady Bird should be so lucky to have them as her parents, just as she should be so lucky to have Miguel as her brother, and his girlfriend Shelly, as alternative and different as they may appear on the outside.
Lady Bird is a great example of the middle class struggle. She wants more out of life, and I can’t blame her. Ambition is a great thing, and drives us to be our best selves. But blind ambition can also sometimes blind us of the privilege we know today. Somebody will always have it “better off” than us, but that only restricts our happiness if we let it. In her directorial debut, Gerwig has shown she is an emotionally effective filmmaker, one with the sensibilities to craft a great film full of heart and laughter, a balance that often eludes filmmakers. As this was essentially an auto-biographical film, I am curious to see what Gerwig does next, if she is able to build on this truly remarkable film with something just as affecting, just as funny, and just as important to the fabric of the middle class American family.
This was a film that quite frankly surprised me in how personal it managed to be to me. It transcends gender, though it does play at what growing up as a girl can be like. It transcends geography, unless you did grow up in a major city. But growing up in the Midwest, I can feel Lady Bird’s longing for more. It transcends drama by having hilarious interludes, and by managing to not culminate in some great big dramatic twist, or fight, or falling out. Its slice of life appeal suits both its style and cast. I can only hope that others can connect with the film as deeply as I was able. I was awash with emotions throughout: laughing, crying, cheering, endlessly hoping that Lady Bird would succeed, that she would see how much her life has been sprinkled with star dust, even as I too struggle every day to see the same.