As divisive and overused Rotten Tomatoes has become in the recent year, it’s hard to ignore Lady Bird beating the record for most positive reviews to remain at 100% (164 positives beating Toy Story 3’s previous record of 163). While it since has dropped to 99%, it’s still only at 1 Rotten score with 213 Fresh reviews in its favor. With that level of acclaim is worth taking note of, so I figured I’d give it a shot and see what it had to offer. And while not the best film of the year, it can definitely stand out as one of 2017’s strongest offerings with career highlights from Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan.
Set in Sacramento California in 2002, the film follows Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson in her final months of high school before attending college. While Christine wants to get as far away from the stuffy, Catholic driven high-schools of Sacramento, and study in the liberal arts of New York, her parents can’t afford to send her especially after her father is laid off from his job.
With her grades not up to scratch, Christine decides to try out some extracurricular activities to look better on her financial aid application, and takes up theatre with her best friend Julie. There she meets Danny, an aspiring actor who takes a liking to Christine. However, the theatre group also leads Christine to a whole new realm of popularity, taking the escape from arguing with her parents, Christine follows the crowd, and enters some of the most important events of her young life.
While there is something of an overarching plot in Christine’s attempts to get into an East Coast college, for the most part, the film takes on a slightly episodic approach with Christine experiencing little moments of life with only a slight connection between them. It’s not as chaotic as something like Dazed & Confused, but there’s definitely not as much flow to the narrative as you might expect. The result is a film that still manages to captures those defining moments without feeling like it’s forcing everything together or just putting scenes in for the sake of it. This is a film that examines life through the eyes of a teenager and captures the best example of it since John Hughes, being equal parts confusing, turbulent, and joyous.
While Christine is the primary focus with her mother Marion taking the main supporting role, the film is filled with a number of interesting and diverse people that inhabit Christine’s life. Her father Larry is an old man in a young world, having lost his job and battling with depression, he still somehow manages to find a way to help his daughter along her way. He’s a definite rock in her life and she steadies him as much he does her. Christine’s adopted brother Miguel is going through a Goth phase with his girlfriend Shelly and doesn’t take too kindly to Christine’s insistence on mocking him at every turn. Their relationship is just as fractured as Christine and Marion’s and serves as another reason why Christine wants out of California as soon as possible.
Around her school, the student population is just as varied, there are friendly faces like Christine’s best friend Julie. She takes what could’ve been a typical fat best friend role and gives it enough shy charm to be likable, but enough confidence to stay true to herself after losing Christine to the cool kids. Also, friendly is Danny, played by Lucas Hedges who turns in a sweet performance following his closed off role in Manchester By The Sea. Danny is one of the genuine good people of the film, but even he has secrets, Christine’s discovery leads to a very sour and very important realization for her going forward.
Less friendly faces include Jenna, a popular and attractive girl who’s constantly getting into trouble for her rebellious attitude. Much like Julie this could’ve been a very one-note character, but Jenna is giving enough to show that there is a genuine person underneath the glamour. She takes Christine in based on a lie, but her reaction to finding the truth does not go the way you’d expect it to at all. We don’t get a great deal on Jenna, but enough to show she’s not all what you think she’d be.
Then there was Kyle, played by Timothee Chalamet straight out of Call Me By Your Name, while Julie and Jenna were both more than their arch-types, Kyle is everything wrong with his, a pretentious, band-playing, war-hating, poetry quoting liberal arts douche that popped up everywhere after 9/11. He’s a very annoying character, but he was supposed to be, he’s the closest the film ever gets to a real villain. Chalamet plays the stereotype well, never going into parody, but obviously hitting the notes harder to sell just how much of a dick he really is.
While Kyle was the film’s villain, in Christine’s eyes it was her mother Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf, and was her main antagonist. But it’s here where the film’s key balancing act comes into play in that we see Marion through Christine and Marion’s own eyes. To Christine, she’s a judgmental, argumentative and unlikable person who can’t help but snap at every little thing she does. However, to herself, Marion is a hard-working, devoted wife, and mother struggling to keep the family afloat while her daughter has to rebel against everything she does. And the beauty is, both views of the character is right and Metcalf captures that quite wonderfully. She’s not a perfect character, but that’s the point, she has so much responsibility and stress that of course she’s not going to have it all together. Christine is a difficult girl to get along with so of course they’re going to be at each other’s throats. It’s in the small moments away from all that, the moments where they can relax and be mother and daughter that allows their relationship to feel all the more genuine.
The main draw of the film is Lady Bird herself, Christine played by the impossible to pronounce Saoirse Ronan. I’ve been a fan of Ronan for a while and I’m happy to see her getting some serious award consideration for this, while not her best role – that’s still held by Hanna – this is a close second and a continuing sign of her rise as an actress. What’s key about her talent is that Christine in general is not a likable person, she’s actually quite horrible at points, lying, stealing, arguing, dropping old friends to focus on new strangers, ignoring warnings, and actively rebelling for the sake of being different. She even gives herself the ‘Lady Bird’ name and forces everyone to refer to her as that, most likely as a way to further cut herself off from her parents by removing the one thing she couldn’t get rid of. And yet despite all that, I’ve never found myself hating her, I disliked her at times, but I never hated her because Christine is a goddamn teenager and teenagers are dumb, shallow assholes who only care about popularity and their own interests. Ronan was key to making sure that Christine’s immaturity was displayed, not her unpleasant nature. Everyone knows someone like Christine, everyone probably went through similar periods of the life, you don’t judge her for being selfish, you recognize the faults in being young and intelligent and know that she’ll regret these moments later on. It’s a testament to the film to make the lead character that horrible, but Ronan was able to take the vinegar in her dialogue, and still find a way to redeem the character and endear us to her. We’re seeing the world through her eyes, but we understand it better than she does, the journey is watching her catch-up.
First time director, Greta Gerwig, has been a name on the indie circuit for a while as an actress and writer, but now she’s showing herself as a solid director as well. Obviously with a film like this, the writing is one of the main stars and Gerwig certainly shows a lot of talent there. I have to imagine the film is partially self-biographical since Gerwig herself is a Sacramento resident who went to Catholic school, but it adds a little bit of realism to the whole thing. Moments that are just absurd enough that they couldn’t have been made up – the best laugh I got in the film was when the football couch took over from the theatre director and taught the class like a football team.
Where Gerwig shines is on her ability to defy convention, coming of age films are nothing new, but she injects something quite special into this one, not always going the way you expect. Nowhere is this clearer than in Christine and Marion’s relationship and why the more episodic approach to the plot works out better, because honestly there is no clear arc between them. Marion struggles to understand the phase into adulthood her daughter is going through, and Christine doesn’t (or won’t) understand what her mother gave up to ensure the family survived. Even by the end of the film, there’s not a clear cut ending to how the two of them interact, but there’s room for evolution and there are a number of scenes where they will comfort each other. That level of realism and understanding in your audience to get that relationships, especially mothers and daughters, are a never ending rollercoaster of emotions that will fight, love, and hate. The lack of a definitive ending to their relationship is the whole point, you don’t get that one last moment of forgiveness, there’s still work to be done, and there’s doors to be open.
For a first time director, Gerwig manages to balance charm and realism surprisingly well. For every Kyle douche line and oddball moment the film shows someone suffering from depression or struggling to hold it all together. One of the main themes of the film is success and it would’ve been very easy to have kept that to Christine in her quest to succeed in New York away from the dull life of Sacramento, but that struggle is all around. Larry struggles to succeed in a younger world, Marion struggles to succeed as the family’s main breadwinner, Danny struggles to be true to himself, Kyle struggles not to say anything douchey. Even smaller characters like Christine’s theatre teacher is shown on the sidelines to be struggling with the death of his son, and whether it was a drug overdose, or a suicide that took him. Christine’s selfishness blinds her to a lot of these issues, but that’s why the audience gets a more encompassing view of the world and these characters, so we can find Christine’s place in it all, and how much she still has to learn along the way.
I’m happy I saw Lady Bird and in a time when Coming of Age movies have been quite strong over the past few years, this one is a standout. It’s not the masterpiece that the Rotten Tomatoes score would indicate, but Greta Gerwig has brought out something charming, something funny, something harsh, and something rough that all comes together for one of the best showings of the teenage life in recent years. Anchored by Ronan’s layered, insulting, endearing performance, and a realistically turbulent mother/daughter relationship, there’s definitely a lot to like with this one, and I’m interested to see what Gerwig does next.
I am giving Lady Bird a 4 out of 5 Hairpieces!