Lady Bird is the most free-flowing, witty and optimistic coming-of-age story of the decade
Edited by Jacob Nierenberg
A lot can be shown in 94 minutes. Or a lot can be wasted. Many coming of age stories take that long just to introduce main plot points, but not Lady Bird, the magnificent and truly original directorial debut by Greta Gerwig.
Lady Bird can be best appreciated as the visualized diary of a girl becoming a woman: it contains a multitude of meaningful episodes, without dedicating extended time to each one so as to dilute the poignance of the journey. We see all we need to see of Lady Bird’s transformation from a kind but somewhat shallow and reckless person to a kind and less shallow and reckless person. It may be one of the most focused films ever written.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a rising senior at a Catholic high school, which she attends on a scholarship. She acts out against her nagging mother by jumping out of a moving car, and — in the next shot — showcasing the words “FUCK YOU MOM” on her cast as the credits begins. Despite not being a dedicated student, she’s on a mission to get accepted into East Coast colleges, which she imagines have “cultured” people not found in Sacramento.
The levity in the scene transitions, the short shots of Lady Bird in various youthful settings, and the soft acoustic rock remind us that our hero is suffering from teen angst, rather than a looming depression, or worse. In montages, we see her and her classmates cross themselves during assemblies, eat communion wafers while talking about sex, gossip about teachers, and follow annoying but short-of-oppressive routines. This may appear another redundant teen movie, but the wit and free-flowing nature with which Lady Bird’s slice of life is told is simply irresistible.
Lady Bird’s plot points blend together seamlessly and collectively. Lady Bird’s romance with school play standout and Francophile Danny, is told in about 20 minutes. They are cast in the school play, she flirts, they kiss, begin hanging out, merge their friend groups, get stoned and eat at diners.
While at a concert with Danny, Lady Bird eyes a dark, rebellious-looking musician named Kyle, whose constant scowl foils Danny’s omnipresent smile. Throughout the film, characters like Kyle are introduced before the viewer understands their significance, but the film returns to them in a free-flowing, natural way that more than justifies their inclusion.
A few scenes later, we spot Lady Bird and her best friend Julie growing impatient with the long line at a diner bathroom. Lady Bird sees no point in waiting, and she and Julie walk into the men’s bathroom, where she opens a stall to find Danny kissing another boy. A lesser movie might force feed a dramatic rain-soaked pursuit by Danny, or protracted monologue by Lady Bird, but the film sums everything up perfectly by cutting to the girls listening to the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash into Me” in the front seats of a car, staring at the sky and sobbing. The film doesn’t languish in this heartbreak: Lady Bird soon forgives Danny, and helps him to try to come out to his family, in a beautiful scene that doesn’t stall the progression of other plot points.
No scenes drag on and none transition awkwardly. Excluding brief segues (like the bathroom exchanges and the Dave Matthews Band crying car clip), or montages, I counted 56 unique scenes — quite a high number for a modern movie in the age of HD and superfluous camera movements.
Unlike recent spectacular coming-of-age stories like Moonlight or Mud, the camera doesn’t prioritize examining characters with extreme close-ups. The script of Lady Bird is so tight and fat-free that everything you need to know about the story and its message is apparent in quick shots that rarely linger more than a few seconds. A less skilled director may have drowned out the film’s realism by trying to capture every possible angle of characters’ faces during each “important” scene.
Lady Bird and Danny’s friends smoking pot, singing in a car, and becoming a clique is illustrated in a quick montage. Later, we see how Lady Bird celebrates her 18th birthday — by buying cigarettes and a big penis-filled Playgirl in a short sequence of clips — more effectively than in any time-consuming, overwritten scene.
Lady Bird is as perky and quietly bright as its titular character. Unlike Moonlight, Mud or Call Me By Your Name, which employ a dark blue evening color palette throughout to mirror the murkiness of youth and want, Lady Bird is defined by warm colors, showcased in the bright yellow and green world the character navigates in her Northern California high school parking lot, lunch area, and on her way home.
Gerwig’s lightning quick wit and comedic timing — which made Frances Ha one of the most charming woman-child coming of age stories ever made — sparkles throughout the story. Preparing to lose her virginity to the long haired, supposedly virgin, anarchist Kyle, she mumbles, as he puts a condom on: “You’re so dexterous with that.” After underwhelming sex, Kyle states plainly that he wasn’t a virgin before, and then denies lying earlier to Lady Bird by saying, “I haven’t lied in two years” — a ridiculous claim, but one that reeks of familiar teen self-satisfaction. After he affirms that the sex wasn’t necessarily special, Lady Bird yells, “I was on top! Who the fuck is on top their first time?”
In a lesser movie, Kyle might assume the role of a villain, or tormentor, but he’s not. He’s a smart, cocky wanna-be anarchist musician who is trying a bit too hard to not give a shit, and Lady Bird encounters him the way most mature young adults encounter those people: thinking he’s cool and on to something, before realizing he’s full of shit and moving on, without bearing a grudge. Because Lady Bird doesn’t worry about herself, we the audience don’t have to worry about her either, and can enjoy her wit, and the fucked-up but harmless situations she gets herself into.
This is a film that doesn’t paint its characters in black and white; most of the characters that create problems for Lady Bird are merely thorns in her side, like Kyle. (There’s also the school nuns, who break up direct body contact at dances by insisting boys and girls keep their distance: “six inches for the Holy Spirit.”)
The closest thing this film has to a villain may be Lady Bird’s mother Marion, an overworked, underpaid psych nurse who buys gifts for her coworkers, houses and nurtures her son’s girlfriend, hugs Danny, and centers her unemployed, depressed husband Larry. But she doesn’t appear to respect — or even like — her own daughter. In one great clip, Lady Bird asks her “Do you like me?” to which Marion states, “Of course I love you.” When Lady Bird says, “But do you like me,” Marion shrugs, “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.”
Lady Bird isn’t the best possible version of herself, but she’s pretty damn good for a high schooler, yet Marion treats her like a disappointment. Some viewers even say Marion is abusive. I partially agree, but the abuse is not the only element in their relationship, whereas it is in the mother-daughter relationship of I, Tonya, which is as black and white as Lady Bird is grey, and human. (I did not like the flippant tone of I, Tonya.) Marion undoubtedly has a blind spot when it comes to Lady Bird’s goodness, or a fault in her own programming that Lady Bird triggers.
Lady Bird’s relationship with Marion is sturdy enough for the first few story “arcs,” — drama class, Danny, Kyle, social ladder-climbing, and the college application process. Marion judges her daughter for not folding her clothes and picking a prom dress that is “too pink.”
But as Lady Bird graduates high school, and gets into a New York City college, Marion — who didn’t know Lady Bird was applying to East Coast schools and financial aid behind her back, with help from Larry — feels betrayed, and gives Lady Bird the silent treatment for the whole summer. We see this abuse in compartmentalized clips as Lady Bird paints her childhood room white, passes her driver’s test, and celebrates her birthday without her mom. We also see Marion try to pen Lady Bird letters of reconciliation, and we see her crumpled up drafts litter the kitchen table.
The classic airport makeup trope is turned on its head: Marion refuses to walk Lady Bird to the security check, claiming the parking fee is too expensive. We see her crying as she circles the airport, aware of her maternal failings, and then finally running to the terminal to make things right, only to find Lady Bird has already passed through security, out of Marion’s reach.
By film’s end, Lady Bird has grown as a person — no longer one to jump from a moving car to spite her mom, or blame her for living in Sacramento, “the Midwest of California.” She has become the bigger woman in their relationship, but we also see — at the airport, in the letters — that Marion is almost ready to apologize and work on their relationship. She’s just not strong enough to make the first (or second, or third) move. The viewer doesn’t get to see their reconciliation, but the film forecasts one. After all, this is a brightly lit, witty coming-of-age story filled with flawed but well-intentioned people hurting and forgiving each other in turn. Now, perhaps more than ever, the world needs more Lady Birds.