Lady Bird is a coming of age story which brilliantly portrays a complex mother-daughter relationship which, while unquestionably built on love and respect, becomes fraught by the typical tensions of teenage years. Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, a seventeen year old who has nicknamed herself Lady Bird in a move which infuriates her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf. The film follows Lady Bird as she navigates her final year of high-school, during which she’ll discover acting, cannabis, boys and the cool group – while in the background her mother and newly unemployed father (Tracy Letts) struggle to stay afloat.
Lady Bird is written and directed by Greta Gerwig who based the central character on her teenage self. Gerwig previously starred in a number of indie comedies this decade which have centred on the lives of middle-class millennials who are struggling for purpose. Rather than being anywhere near as insufferable as they sound, these films have all hung around the awkward-yet-warm presence of Gerwig who in turn managed to inject her humour and humanity into the roles. Frances Ha (2012) was my introduction to her work and, although I was initially sceptical, I was won over by Gerwig’s captivating performance as the titular character.
Gerwig draws on her young life for the plot of Lady Bird, locating the story in her home city of Sacramento which Lady Bird holds in apparent contempt. Add to this category her family home, her rigid Catholic school and often her own skin, and you get a picture of the scale of her teenage angst. Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) join the school’s drama group, where both become enamoured with Danny, played by 2017’s break-out star Lucas Hedges. He and Lady Bird grow close but their romance is doomed, after which she meets the hilarious Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, 2018’s break-out star) who is the perfect representation of the moody, teenage boy who fancies himself as the new Jack Kerouac – “I don’t like money. I try to subsist on bartering.” Lady Bird ditches Julie and the acting club to try and infiltrate Kyle’s cool group, but finds she has to lie about herself in order to fit in. Luckily, she soon realises her mistake and salvages her friendship with the kind-hearted Julie.
The overarching plot is Lady Bird’s ambition to apply to an artistic East Coast college, which appears to be far beyond her academic limits and the financial resources of her family. This is a frequent flashpoint between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion. Their relationship is the core of the film, providing the key emotional moments which elevate Lady Bird to a great film. Marion is the one who has to deal with the realities of life which Lady Bird doesn’t see or deliberately ignores – like her father’s long battle with depression, her drama teacher’s suicide attempt, or the family’s dire financial situation. In this respect, we can understand Marion’s frustration with Lady Bird compared to her father’s calm sufferance. There is no doubt that Marion loves her daughter, evidenced by her sadness that Lady Bird chooses to spend her last Thanksgiving in Sacramento with Danny. But her worries for Lady Bird cause Marion to react unreasonably and coldly at the film’s climax, leaving both characters deeply upset. The film’s ending is beautiful and offers hope that these two strong-willed characters will reconcile.
Lady Bird is a classic of the coming-of-age genre and will be the benchmark against which future films about female adolescence will be judged. Despite earning five Academy Award nominations in major categories, Lady Bird left this week’s ceremony empty-handed. Although this was probably to be expected, given that comedies rarely do well at the awards and also that the film is female led in every respect, it is a great shame that such a fantastic film didn’t receive any recognition. I suppose it’s up to us to vote with our feet then – go and see Lady Bird!