Lady Bird

February 16, 2018
Glamorous costumes on display in Greta Gerwig's 'Lady Bird'

It’s long been apparent that Woody Allen’s best films are those in which he doesn’t make an appearance. One day we may be applying the same standard to Greta Gerwig. Her ‘goofy girl’ routine still had its charm in Frances Ha (2012) but by the time of Mistress America, only three years later, it was beginning to grate.

Rather than acting gormless in front of the camera, Lady Bird finds Gerwig sitting in the director’s chair, making a film that redefines the ‘teenage girl’ genre. All such movies are exercises in audience identification and wish fulfilment but rarely has a writer-director captured the contradictions of the teenage mind with such precision.

Set in Sacramento, where Gerwig grew up, the film has a large autobiographical component, but by using Saoirse Ronan in the title role, she crafts a very different persona. Born to Irish parents in the Bronx, Ronan has a sallow, sulky look that synchs perfectly with a character who feels like an alien in her home town. With her hair dyed pink, her pimples and shabby-chic dress sense, Christine McPherson is a type one finds in every high school.

At the age of 17 Christine does not see herself as a stereotype. On the contrary, she has a classic case of that teenage syndrome whereby one feels like a uniquely talented, special individual destined to make a mark on the world. Yet this narcissicism doesn’t mean our heroine is mean or stupid. She’s formidably intelligent, quick with a verbal retort, and prone to moments of painful self-awareness.

Christine has rechristened herself “Lady Bird” for reasons we never learn. Was she thinking of the Lee Hazlewood song? At any rate it’s a more interesting name than “Christine”, and Lady Bird – at least in her own eyes – is a supremely interesting phenomenon.

Lady Bird’s major preoccupation is to get out of Sacramento and escape to the East Coast. That’s “where the culture is”. She thinks it would be great to study at Yale or somewhere like that, but knows she hasn’t got the grades. The other problem is that her parents simply don’t have the money. Her soft-hearted dad, Larry (Tracy Letts), has lost his job as a computer programmer, leaving the family dependent on her mother’s income as a psychiatric nurse.

Money, for Lady Bird, is a detestable problem that shouldn’t stand in the way of her brilliant future. This is one of the reasons her mother, Marion (an exceptional performance by Laurie Metcalf), is growing increasingly intolerant of her daughter’s delusions of grandeur. The film begins with Marion and Lady Bird driving along in tears as they listen to an audio book of The Grapes of Wrath. As soon as the story ends they begin squabbling.

The battle between mother and daughter will be carried on throughout the film, sometimes becoming extreme. Under the pressure of impending poverty, Marion has zero tolerance for her daughter’s self-centredness. It’s obvious that her anger is a function of thwarted, frustrated love, but for Lady Bird it’s an unbearable burden.

Nothing in Lady Bird’s life actually seems that bad. The Catholic School she attends is a cheerful, easy-going place. When Lady Bird plays a prank on the nun who acts as Head Mistress, it’s greeted with a laugh rather than a suspension. Her basic needs are at least partly driven by the cocktail of hormones that permeate the teenage brain. She seeks attention, which she hopes to get by joining the theatre group. She craves status, which she pursues by befriending the coolest, wealthiest, sexiest girl in class, Jenna (Odeya Rush). Finally, she wants to lose her virginity, a mission that leads to liaisons with two inappropriate boys: the first, with awkward, good-natured Danny (Lucas Hedges); the second with self-professed anarchist and obvious wanker, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).

Whatever happens, Lady Bird has to be in charge, spinning out a story that suits her ideal version of what life should be. It’s a tale of trial and error, as she makes one false step after another. She knows she can always fall back on stalwarts such as her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein) who is overweight, insecure, but terminally cheerful. It’s a minor irritation to Lady Bird that the hunky maths teacher seems to have a special preference for Julie.

As this is a coming-of-age story Gerwig eventually has to bring Lady Bird out of her own head and into the land of the grown-ups. She achieves this in a way that is entirely consistent with the character, pushing things to the point where the only two options are success or disaster. For Lady Bird, the sole way of distinguishing right from wrong, truth from falsehood, is in the arena of personal experience. The mark of her temperament is that she learns from every encounter, being determined not to make the same mistakes or endure the same humiliations. Ultimately she realises that the self is not to be fashioned like a work of art, but something to be discovered in unexpected places.

Lady Bird
Written & directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein,
Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith
USA, rated MA 15+, 94 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 17 February, 2018