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Lady Bird movie review: flights of adolescent angsty (#LFF2017)

MaryAnn’s quick take…
An emotional feast full of humor and pathos about the audacity, the wonder, the horror that is female adolescence. Beautiful, bittersweet, and very generous.
I’m “biast” (pro): I am desperate for movies about girls and women; love Ronan and Gerwig
I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Herewith the single authentic movie about being a teenaged girl that our male-dominated entertainment sphere has begun to begrudgingly allow us annually. Last year’s was The Edge of Seventeen; 2015’s was The Diary of a Teenage Girl. Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is like those films, in that it is an emotional feast about the audacity and the wonder and the horror that is female adolescence the likes of which we oh-so rarely get to see onscreen. It is a nightmare and an adventure that will resonant with all girls and women at least in its broad strokes. (If boys and men would like to begin to understand what life is like for girls and women, they could do worse than to watch these films, pay attention, and believe them.) Lady Bird is also as unlike those films as every teenaged girl is from every other teenaged girl. This isn’t the same movie again. It is magnificently unique while also being all-encompassingly universal. This is a rare cinematic achievement.

“I’m 18 and my entire life is a disaster, but no, everything is absolutely fine. Why do you ask?”

(Umpteen samey movies about teenaged boys have trained us to expect new movies to feel like reruns, and they often do. Maybe the lesson here isn’t only that we need lots more movies about girls and women but also lots fewer movies about boys and men. Lots fewer movies overall. There are too many movies for most of them to feel like they have something new to say or at least the same old thing to say in a fresh and entertaining way. Maybe let’s slow down the pace a little?)

If this is our one shot this year, thank the gods and Gerwig that Lady Bird is the glory that it is: so smart, wise, funny, and perceptive that it left me happy-sobbing and feeling like Gerwig had seen straight through me and knows me. (Obviously she and I are meant to be new best friends.) Her debut as solo writer and solo director — she has collaborated in both arenas before, most recently cowriting Mistress America and Frances Ha — is clearly autobiographical in its details, which is probably why this all feels so palpably real and honest and why it has a ring of truth that keeps ringing even if your details are wildly different (as mine are).

Lady Bird left me happy-sobbing and feeling like Greta Gerwig had seen straight through me and knows me.

Like Gerwig, high-school senior Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan: Brooklyn, The Grand Budapest Hotel) lives in Sacramento and attends Catholic school. The year is 2002, which makes Christine just a few years younger than Gerwig, but which also compounds Christine’s usually adolescent woes by setting her story in the post-9/11 economic downturn. Her dad (Tracy Letts: The Big Short, U.S. Marshals) has lost his job, which leaves Mom (Laurie Metcalf: Toy Story 3, Stop-Loss), a nurse, struggling to support the family. They live literally on the wrong side of the tracks, and while they’re not exactly poor, it sometimes seems that way to Christine, whose ache for a more comfortable life will get her into a bit of trouble. Gerwig finds as much humor as pathos in Christine’s longings (her “favorite Sunday activity” with Mom zings with absurdity and aspiration), which extend to wanting to get the hell out of dull Sacramento — “it’s the Midwest of California,” she laments — and into college somewhere singing with art and culture, like New York. She’s not a very enthusiastic student, though…

Everything about Lady Bird, in fact, is about looking back at the painful process of growing up with a mix of affection and exasperation. Ronan, who is only a few years older than Christine, molds her into a wonderful mess, fiercely proud and determined and also maddening with it, because her yearning to be true to herself and to sculpt her own identity keeps bumping into the complication that she simply has no idea who she is yet. She’s flailing around trying everything, just to see where it goes, which often means she ends up acting in ways that are thoughtless and cruel, that hurt people who don’t deserve it. She auditions different boyfriends: theater geek Danny (Lucas Hedges: Anesthesia, Kill the Messenger), too-cool musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet: Love the Coopers, Interstellar). She trades in her funky best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein: Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising) for popular Barbie doll Jenna (Odeya Rush: Goosebumps, The Giver). She even renames herself “Lady Bird” just because it sounds intriguing and mysterious. I’m not sure even she knows what it’s supposed to mean beyond that.

Is it a bad sign when you and your mom both agree on a prom dress?

All that is overshadowed by the primary concern of many a teenaged girl’s life: her relationship with her mother. Christine both craves her mother’s approval and cannot wait to get out from under Mom’s wing; Metcalf is marvelous as a woman going through her own push-and-pull with her daughter. Gerwig absolutely nails the mother-daughter roller coaster, the arguments about nothing that instantly morph into bonding over something silly, and vice versa. It might be the best thing about the film, the most generous aspect of a movie that is already very generous and forgiving of all its characters’ flawed humanity.

A teenaged howl of grief and frustration. A fond memory from the future perch of hindsightful adulthood. Lady Bird is a beautiful and bittersweet snapshot of the awful journey that is adolescence, the one that forces us onto the mysterious road to adulthood without a map, without directions, and without a clue. How are you supposed to get somewhere that you don’t even know where it is? And how does it all seem to end up working out okay once you’re there?

‘Lady Bird’ was the Surprise Film at the 61st BFI London Film Festival


Click here for my ranking of this and 2017’s other theatrical releases.


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View Comments (53)

    • Her name is Christine. I don't know how I got onto Catherine. It's fixed now.

      • I've always, stupidly, pronounced her name SAY-orse in my head. I really had no clue how it should actually be pronounced until recently.
        I think she's pretty darn awesome.

      • I've read this comment several times, and, at the risk of sounding foolish, I have to admit that I'm still baffled by it. I assume it's a joke I'm not getting, but just in case it's not, I'll say: Citation needed.

          • Love the video at that link. True story: I was acquainted with Saoirse's dad, Paul, in New York: we both moved in the same small Irish theater community in the Bronx. I remember when he and his wife had a baby, and I remembering seeing the baby in the cafe where we all hung out. That would have been Saoirse. I also remember when Paul and his family moved back to Ireland and we were all bummed because he was kinda like the big fish in our little pond. :-)

          • If there's one thing in this world that I think a person should have total and absolute authority over, it's the pronunciation of their own name. However Saoirse Ronan wishes to say her own name is the correct way to pronounce her name, even if it's said differently by most people or even other people with the same name.

            I know a few Sophias, one of whom pronounces her name "So-FYE-a," and why not? That's the right way to say her name, even if it's "So-FEE-a" everywhere else.

    • Where did Catherine come from?

      I don't know. Brain fart, I guess. It's fixed now.

  • If you have the chance and the time, this makes a fantastic universal coming of age double feature with The Florida Project. Both films feature deeply flawed, impulsive female protagonists who feel they're being crushed by mean circumstances within their respective classes - both feature attempts to escape into an idealistic, ultimately hollow fantasy-land. To repeat a point in the review, just like Grandma from a couple years back - both have meandering plots that would feel tired and formulaic if they were centered on typical father/son relationships, but feel fresh and exciting with multiple female leads. So if you're all superheroed out, or like me you feel icky handing more dollars to WB and/or Disney, please give one or ideally both of these a shot.

    • *Florida Project* is fantastic, and I will review it eventually, hopefully soon, but I'd hesitate to call it a "coming of age" story. The protagonist is simply far too young for that to apply.

      • The daughter's adventures capture what it feels like to be a child better than any movie I can remember, but you're right, the character that comes of age is the mom. Technically an adult, but stuck in an adolescent consumer mindset, clinging to a childish fantasy, teetering on the edge of an abyss of poverty and addiction. By the end of the film, every link to that fantasy is ripped away from her and she's tumbling into reality and the horrors of adulthood.

        It's my favorite movie this year so far - sharply critical of consumerism while acknowledging the moments of genuine joy it can bring, warm and humanistic without being preachy. So many of the shots are gorgeous - I felt a little guilty liking them so much (poverty porn?). In two movies, Sean Baker has become one of my favorite directors. Ladybird fills the gap between the child and mom in Florida Project and draws a sharp contrast between the concerns and priorities of the lower and middle classes in America. Hopefully, Ladybird picks up more audience and awards buzz and goes even wider. In my dreams Florida Project expands too, but I know it's too slow and unstructured for most audiences. *sigh*

  • Just saw this today and it was fantastic. Spot on with the comparison to Edge of Seventeen and Diary of a Teenage Girl. Not because they’re carbon copies of each other, but because “omg, an actual movie about a girl!” It’s such a breath of fresh air, which is probably part of the reason those have been some of my favorite movies of the last three years (with the remainder of the reason being that they’re just fantastic movies in their own right).

  • Just came back from seeing this, and it is so, so wonderful. Saiorse Ronan continues to be a fantastic actor, and I can't believe she's only 23 (her performances have such emotional depth, and her previous meaty roles such as in Brooklyn made me assume she was maybe in her mid-30s and just playing younger this time around, but I guess she's just THAT good).

    If boys and men would like to begin to understand what life is like for girls and women, they could do worse than to watch these films

    As a guy, I found that a lot of Lady Bird's experiences and struggles -- around wealth/class, parents, religion, adolescent insecurities and identity crises -- resonated with me as well. There's a lot for men to learn AND to identify with, if they gave these films a chance; empathy isn't such an impossible task if you commit to seeing women as regular people, not mysterious alien beings. More movies like this, please.

  • Sorry, I found it to be artificial and never believed it was real for one minute. It's one of those "cleverer than thou" films that pose as something sooo meaningful.

    • The dialogue is often artificial in the sense of being twee and laboriously clever, but so is Ladybird. That forced cleverness and overstated drama is not only consistent with being a lazy, intelligent, self-conscious teen in general, it's also a defining characteristic of our era, when every tweet and text must be clever, fresh, and pregnant with life-changing implications in order to be deemed worthy of transmission.

      Gerwig's previous movies suffer from a similar theatrical, labored quirkiness and sense of oblivious privilege but I still enjoyed them because I felt as if her characters were better than the lines they were given. This is the first time the dialogue mostly worked for me too, because a few genuine moments surface briefly from beneath the sludge of affected, stagy bullshit, and that struggle between the performance of being a teen and simply being a teen is relatable. The final moment of gratitude is simultaneously sincere and melodramatic, which feels appropriate for the character and the moment, but I most appreciated the throwaway lines between the big punches.

      I'm gonna keep harping on this because I like the pairing - by watching this and The Florida Project in succession, one can clearly see the distinction between the lives of the working class and the upper middle class. On one hand, the improvisational, childlike immediacy of the search for basic short-term, security, and on the other the oblivious, idealistic, mannered adolescent search for authenticity and deeper meaning. Both films feel real to me because I grew up wandering the strip malls and knew girls (and boys) very similar to Ladybird in high school, but you're right - the lines can be a bit too clever for their own good.

      • Very well stated. Searching for "authenticity and deeper meaning"? I never felt that Lady Bird was searching for anything other than to get back at her mother. What was with Danny's "I'm so ashamed" tears? Is he so ashamed of being gay?

        The Florida Project could be called, "Get Away With Anything if You're Cute enough." Here, the kids are free to roam around the neighborhood will little to no adult supervision and no clear distinction in their life between right and wrong. Some important issues lurk in the background but the film is overwhelmed by the raunchiness that hides the real issues.

        • The tragedy of The Florida Project is that the fantasy of "get away with anything if you're cute enough" is revealed for the fleeting mirage that it is. It does a good job of balancing the role of personal responsibility and unfair starting circumstances. It's hard to argue that the child deserves what happens to her or that the mom isn't trying in her own way to support them. It's also hard to ignore the effect the mom's poor choices have, although one suspects that the mom had a similar childhood and is simply living life the only way she knows how to. The kids do have a sense of right and wrong - it's just that like a lot of kids, they enjoy breaking the rules and doing things that are wrong because there are typically no consequences.

          Ladybird's series of boyfriends and friends (and activities) showcase her trying on a series of identities and deciding if they feel authentic to who she is and who she wants to become. She sequentially adopts their values in a typical adolescent search to gain some external foothold that will allow her to break away from the will of her mother. I guess "deeper meaning" is a stretch though. Maybe deeper interaction? Sincere emotion? The interesting thing abut the movie is that although she's able to forge a deeper connection and understanding with her mother, her expression of that connection is yet another self-conscious, stagy performance piece. Whether it was intentional or not, I like that the movie fails to achieve easy, simple closure. It feels more messy and real.

          • "it's just that like a lot of kids, they enjoy breaking the rules and doing things that are wrong because there are typically no consequences."

            Sounds like someone who doesn't really understand the difference between right and wrong but justify their actions based on what they can get away with.

            Lady Bird's "deeper connection and understanding with her mother" is expressed but does not feel organically demonstrated or conveyed as something other than a way to end the movie.

          • Sounds like someone who doesn't really understand the difference between right and wrong but justify their actions based on what they can get away with.

            You have just described adolescence in a nutshell, for many many people who go on to become fine upstanding citizens. And you think this is a condemnation of the film?!

          • Then you made even less sense. You expect five-year-olds to have a complex moral understanding of the world and their actions?

          • With all due respect, I think you should see the film before we discuss it further. I never said that the children should have a complex moral understanding of the world and their actions, only that they be taught that actions which cause harm to people and property are wrong and have consequences. I don't think six year old children are too young to get that.

          • only that they be taught that actions which cause harm to people and property are wrong and have consequences.

            And who is suggesting otherwise?

          • I think you should see the film before we discuss it further.

            What makes you think she hasn't seen The Florida Project? She said that she has, right here on this thread.

          • It seems unrealistic to expect these children to have a conscious understanding of objective moral values. I remember stealing some candy from a store and setting random things on fire with matches at around that age. My parents were very strict and told me plenty of times what was right and what was wrong in terms of the law - I certainly knew I wasn't supposed to break the rules, but the balance of power between short term rewards and long term consequences was pretty lopsided. As recent news has highlighted, there's a large number of adults in prestigious positions of power who justify their actions based on what they can get away with. One could even argue that the question forms the "moral" foundation of the entire financial sector.

            These children, and every other human with reasonably normal brain chemistry, intuitively understand basic moral principles: do not cause pain, kill, disable, or deceive, do not deprive of freedom or pleasure, do your duty. The crucial variable seems to be the degree of empathy you feel toward the person you are interacting with. As empathy rises, we feel more and more uncomfortable breaking moral rules. At a very young age, it's natural to have an underdeveloped level of empathy. Isolated by poverty in a society that glorifies wealth, it's also understandable that an endless stream of tourists visiting a walled consumerist utopia might seem like an alien species to an uneducated mother and child, not worthy of the same degree of empathy afforded family and close friends.

            I agree that the end of Ladybird is forced, but as I said the fact that it doesn't quite work is consistent with Ladybird's character and that moment in her life. Even in gratitude, she's kind of self-centered and melodramatic. It's not neat, powerful closure, but that tension between playing a role and honest expression is the driving force in coming of age stories for girls (and real life coming of age for everyone), so I liked it. I understand why you disliked it though. Different strokes.

          • Thanks for your comments. You are very articulate (must be a writer or professor)

        • I never felt that Lady Bird was searching for anything other than to get back at her mother.

          The film doesn't pretend that Lady Bird eventually discovers "deeper meaning" or finds her way to the "right" answers, whatever those are. It's a snapshot of a young girl going through the trials of adolescence -- trying on new friends and new identities, crushing and lusting after boys, struggling with her family's relatively lower class status, making mistakes, trying to dream big, and, yes, sniping with her mother. I found it thrilling to simply have that experience depicted onscreen, as it so rarely is.

          What was with Danny's "I'm so ashamed" tears? Is he so ashamed of being gay?

          Well, yeah, I thought so. This was in 2002, more than a decade before the legalization of same-sex marriage and the turnaround in Americans' general acceptance of openly gay relationships. (And clearly it's still something a lot of Americans have a problem with today.) I'm not sure if young LGBT folks had the support systems, or the framework to talk about and think about their identity, that they do today (and even WITH that support, they still face a ton of discrimination). I don't think it's so implausible for a young character of that era to be confused by and ashamed of his sexuality, and afraid of how everyone would treat him if they found out.

          • I think Danny was also ashamed of "leading her on", being a perfect romantic boyfriend for Ladybird, except for the fact he's gay.

          • I understand how you feel about the film and the main character. Thanks for that. As far as Danny is concerned, it was the 21st century not the 1800s or even the 1950s. Anyway, regardless of the time frame, I think it sends the wrong signal to today's young people about "coming out." Why was that scene even necessary?

          • On whether it's easy to come out today, I would defer to LGBT folks' perspectives on this. Here's one. Here's another.

            I think it sends the wrong signal to today's young people about "coming out." Why was that scene even necessary?

            I don't think it's a signal of anything. It's how the character felt. His desire to stay in the closet is not an endorsement of staying in the closet.

          • Where did I say it's easy to come out today?

            Regardless of intent, films do send messages. I think many young people thinking about coming out might get the message that being gay is something to be ashamed of.

          • I think it'd be really tough for anyone to take that message from this film.

          • Maybe yes, maybe no, but what is the purpose of that scene? Why is it even necessary? Even if only one person took that message from the film, it would not justify its inclusion.

          • The purpose of that scene is to show us Danny's frame of mind, and it's a frame of mind that is completely understandable. As other commenters here have explained.

          • The point is that a teenage girl dates a couple of boys, and one of them is closeted. Such people exist. Such experiences happen. Why not include them?

            The film doesn't say that being gay is wrong. It says that being a closeted gay teenager is emotionally hard. Big difference.

            As far as the scene's storytelling function, it shows Lady Bird breaking through a sham relationship to make a real connection. She turns a fake boyfriend into a real friend, and gives him comfort and compassion in his distress -- a moment in which she's concerned not with her own woes but with someone else's. Part of her journey of figuring things out and growing up, however slowly and imperfectly. And it gives a supporting character his own arc as well, which adds to the emotional richness of the film.

            http://www.newnownext.com/lady-bird-gay-coming-out-scene/11/2017/

          • I don't have any problem with any of that except the part about being ashamed. What if he said "I'm so ashamed because I'm poor" or "I'm so ashamed because I'm black." Would you have the same reaction?

          • A lot of teenagers experience self-hatred for various reasons. Why are you against that being depicted?

          • I think there is a social stigma around being poor that affects adults as well. In the movie, Lady Bird's mom is clearly conscious of her economic status.

          • There is a social stigma around being poor that affects adults as well. It's hard not to spend much time around poor adults and not pick up on that. Granted, it's not always obvious but it's there.

          • Where did I say it's easy to come out today?

            You criticized Danny for being ashamed of coming out, because "As far as Danny is concerned, it was the 21st century not the 1800s or even the 1950s." Isn't this what you meant?

          • It may be easier today than it used to be, but it is never easy. I think we can agree on that.

          • The point--or one of the points--of the movie was that she lived in a small, repressive town, and she had very limited access to the kind of education and employment that might allow her to lead a different sort of life. She spent most of the movie struggling to find a way out of that situation. By showing just how closed-minded the people around her were, the film told us what sort of obstacles she was up against.

            I would add that I know plenty of religious people today (some of whom work in schools) who are even more closed-minded than the characters in the movie.

          • I don't think the people of Sacramento, which is after all the State Capital of California and hardly "closed-minded", would appreciate your characterization. How did she have any more limited access to education than anyone else? She just wanted to go somewhere else to get away from her mother.

        • Ladybird's family are firmly in the middle, but a large part of the movie revolves around her exploration of the values of the upper middle class as demonstrated by her classmates and neighbors. Going to a private Catholic high school, applying to an elite university in the Northeast, having a parent and sibling who are white collar professionals working in the tech industry, her musician crush's (justifiably ridiculed) superficial concern for the plight of impoverished people in other countries - these are trappings of what I would call the upper middle class.

          Although her father is laid off, the financial crisis in the film is whether or not her parents can afford to send her to a private college in New York - a middle class family would more likely be wondering whether or not they could afford to send their kids to state schools. Ladybird is dealing with the shame of not being as wealthy as her peers through much of the film, but she retains an upper middle class mindset. By the end, there is less a sense of pride in her family's humble position than a sense of gratitude that she was able to escape from a relatively uncultured life in Sacramento to an exciting, fashionable, intellectually stimulating life in New York.

          There's nothing wrong with upper middle class values - they just have a slightly different set of priorities and a more muted sense of urgency. I've said this before, but Gerwig's movies feel as though they were written by someone who knows what it's like to run out of money, but understands that there's always a safety net beneath them. They're curious yet comfortable; the main characters' struggles are creative rather than a struggle for survival - not inherently less interesting or realistic, just different. If you'd prefer to say this is a story about a middle class mother and daughter - that's accurate too.

          • these are trappings of what I would call the upper middle class.

            Lady Bird may aspire to be upper middle class, but we can see perfectly well in the film that she is not. That's what her aspirations are all about: wanting to be something that she is not.

          • I agree - she's trying on different identities like a series of prom dresses, and none of them are quite right.

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