Quentin Tarantino once said of Kevin Smith’s “Chasing Amy” “Yeah, it’s personal, but if it isn’t good who cares?” This was, of course, Tarantino’s lead into a strong endorsement of the indie filmmakers critically high-point, before Smith eventually squandered most his good will on half-baked stoner comedies and non-sense podcast fodder. But it’s this sentiment that comes to mind when reviewing actress Greta Gerwig's “Lady Bird,” her debut film as both writer and director. Based heavily on the 34-year old’s own coming of age experiences in 2002 Sacramento, the movie plays as both a love letter to the California capital, as well as a tender-hearted comedy about a big fish in a little pond who’s awkwardly splashing her way to grander opportunities.
Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a high-school senior who is desperately trying to leave her small town life. While forced to live a lower-middle-class existence, fighting with her pragmatist mother (Laurie Metcalf) and preparing graduation from her strict Catholic education. As she tries on many new personalities she ready’s herself for a more cultured life at one of the prospective east-coast universities she hopes to attend. This is made explicitly known to her friends and family when she forces them to refer to her as Lady Bird instead of her given name. After deciding she needs an artistic outlet, her and best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) take small parts in the school musical, just before Lady Bird finds a new group of partying, pseudo-intellectual parking-lot rebels. In the background of this, with the help of her out-of-work father (Tracy Letts), our protagonist tries to apply to as many out-of-state schools as she can without her easily-worried mother finding out.
Gerwig’s treatment of this coming-of-age story is grounded by its specificity. It’s not a story that has to take place in Sacramento to work, but in doing so the city becomes another character whose relationship with Lady Bird is just as nuanced as the other human relationships in the movie. This didn’t need to be set in 2002, but the music and wardrobe choices, as well as the pre-smartphone, pre-social media time-frame that’s captured here, keep the characters isolated in their suburban malaise that’s lovingly recreated. It’s also nice to see a story about a realistically middle-class family who is struggling financially but without shifting the narrative away from the protagonists
The other element that separates this effort from the film’s generic teen-movie lineage, is the quality of the performances combined with Gerwig’s funny yet truthful, conversational dialogue. The many prickly scenes between Metcalf and Ronan’s mother-daughter exchanges is like watching two tennis pros bat the ball back and forth without ever letting it hit the ground. These actors are totally in tune with each other but not at the expense of movie’s larger impact. As real and emotional as the acting is, it never overwhelms the story or dampens the scripts many comedic highlights. Actor/playwright Letts also has complicated arc throughout the story as his personal and professional failures are redeemed through his daughter’s naive ambitions. It’s a heartbreaking arc that the film doesn’t explicate in an overly sentimental way.
Not only is “Lady Bird” an exceptional effort from a first time director, this has been one of the strongest films to come out this year--though it should be stated Gerwig’s collaborations with directors Noah Baumbach and Joe Swanberg was more extensive than the usual co-writer or actor. Every scene advances or complicates the characters and never lets them settle into a comfortable archetype, and the craft behind the earthy, amber-hued visual design of the picture also shows a level of stylistic confidence that elevates the project beyond either the teen genre or the usual Sundance crowd-pleaser. Like any great filmmaker who understands how to balance story with style, Gerwig’s snappy dialogue and personal touches are in perfect sync with the rhythm of the narrative and in service to the overall quality of the final result.
Originally Published in the Idaho State Journal/Dec-2017
Listen to this episode of Jabber and the Drone to hear more conversation about "Lady Bird."