Each year, as those in the critic community prepare to weigh in on potential awards contenders, the “coming of age” genre is always a force to be reckoned with. As independent film continues to weave in-and-out of the blockbuster dominated zeitgeist, these small but personal films infect many of us with their unique blend of insightful nostalgia and raw emotion. In a genre peppered with filmmakers and their respective journeys finally captured on screen, it becomes an increasing rarity to identify a true standout in the crowd. And then there are films like Lady Bird.
Starting off in 2002, Saoirse Ronan stars as Christine McPherson, a young woman entering her senior year in a Catholic high school with every intention of vacating her home of Sacramento, CA for an East Coast college as soon as humanly possible. Whether her grades permit it or not, Lady Bird – as she demands to be called – intends on establishing a hefty amount of distance from her overbearing mother in Marion (Laurie Metcalf). As she propels towards graduation, Lady Bird floats through friendships, romances, and even creative endeavors; all in a seemingly endless pursuit to define herself. Or rather, redefine the very conventions of identity.
There is little fresh or new in this nevertheless engaging story from writer and director Greta Gerwig. What sets Lady Bird apart from countless other coming of age tales, lies deftly in the whimsy of Saoirse Ronan’s eyes. Appearing in nearly every scene, Ronan expertly layers the stubbornness, naiveté, and brash arrogance of a teenager desperate to break apart from the confines of her own perceived reality.
That perception is often – as is true for many disaffected youth – based on money. Those that have it, seem to live a carefree life of luxury and bliss. While those from the “wrong side of the tracks”, such as Lady Bird and her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), endure a world saturated with thrift stores and Christmas presents containing moisture wicking socks. As Lady Bird wades through her impulsive choices stemming from a mundane existence, Ronan captures our hearts by refusing to stoop to the saccharine tropes of her cinematic counterparts. Lady Bird lies for selfish reasons, clings to vanity, modifies personality traits to “fit in”, she even betrays friends. This is exactly why her journey never feels anything short of genuine, a ridiculously difficult task in a genre stacked with asinine final reveals or manufactured conclusions.
Carrying the remainder of the weight is Laurie Metcalf’s Marion. Perhaps this lies in my own childhood – being raised by a nurse working countless hours just to keep lights on and generic snacks on the table – but she was a picture of brutal parental honesty. Overly critical, demanding, and proud to a fault; Marion exemplified the struggles of a mother desperate to see her daughter become the absolute best version of herself possible. Metcalf is both exhausting and heartbreaking as Marion sternly stands her ground each and every frame she has, until a soul-crushing moment of brevity near the end showcases the truth of her convictions. Both actresses are assuredly Academy bound in 2018.
While the structure of Lady Bird adheres strictly to its “Year in the Life” concept and occasionally drifts too far into an acting showcase; its brisk runtime, earnest storytelling, and stark honesty invigorates a genre suffocating in sameness. And while Greta Gerwig may have painted her wings, it is the boldly captivating and nuanced performance from Saoirse Ronan that ultimately allows Lady Bird to fly.
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein
Screenplay by Greta Gerwig
Directed by Greta Gerwig