About two-thirds into Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, Sister Sarah-Joan has a conversation with Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) where she asks the titular character: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” If that’s the case (and any dog would agree), then Lady Bird is very much Gerwig’s love letter to her hometown of Sacramento, California.
Gerwig, a brilliant actress you might know from films like 20th Century Women and Greenberg, has written before, notably her last two films with director Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America). She’s even co-directed a feature before (Nights & Weekends). But in this, her first feature as a solo writer-director, she delivers an incredibly assured, supremely confident debut that would stand head and shoulders above any other in 2017, except that it also happens to be the year that Jordan Peele delivered Get Out. Together, they stand above everyone else.
Lady Bird tracks the eponymous character’s last year of high school as she dreams of escaping her hometown for the more “cultured” East Coast cities like Connecticut or New York. In the meantime, she falls in love, joins drama club, and tries not to think about her family’s financial instability.
Since Gerwig knows Sacramento inside out, very specific locations abound in the film, from the thrift store where mother and daughter shop for clothes, the parking lot where the cool kids hang out, the coffee shop where Lady Bird works, to the “Fab 40s,” an upscale neighborhood. The locations are so chosen and dear to Gerwig that they’re even a connecting plot point in the film, albeit a small but heart-tugging one (noted with a “REMEMBER THIS” in the script).
One of the most striking things about the film is that so much seems to transpire in the course of Lady Bird’s school year, and yet the film clocks in at an economical, lean 90 minutes. In this, its mastery of montage, its time frame covered, and its school setting, it calls to mind Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. While the editing is great, it’s actually all according to the script, which Gerwig had been working on for at least two years. Having read it, there are only two minor changes and one missing shot, which is impressive for a first-time director. She shot nothing she didn’t need. The script is rock-solid, and with a foundation like that, it stands to reason that the directing was easier for it.
Lady Bird has two paramours during the year, but the main relationships in the film are with her mother (played by the amazing Laurie Metcalf), and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Both relationships get tested and prove to be stronger than any juvenile would-be notion of love indicated by the two guys she gets involved with.
The cast is filled with great players. Tracy Letts plays Lady Bird’s father, who is at turns funny, wise, and compassionate; Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet play Lady Bird’s first flings; Feldstein does terrific work (she even gets her own mini-subplot). Everyone gets a chance to shine, even Lady Bird’s brother and live-in girlfriend.
The film has the biggest heart of any of this year’s Best Picture nominees. You can see it in how it treats its characters. Even when Lady Bird and Danny (Hedges) break up, she ultimately expresses compassion for his situation. There are no villains; everyone’s going through their own personal something. Even “cool girl” Jenna isn’t portrayed as a bad person; just different. The closest to a villain is Lady Bird herself, who can be (admittedly) self-absorbed and selfish. Though some of her mother Marion’s put-downs are savage.
Lady Bird’s fights with her mother are raw and cut to the bone, but towards the end, when Marion doesn’t even bother responding is when it really stings. “You both have such… strong personalities,” her father explains. Gerwig connects them in separate scenes. Driving, for one. Or how Lady Bird can put down her mother to other people, but when Danny does it, she defends her, saying she has a big heart (something her brother’s girlfriend tells her).
Gerwig’s confidence comes from having been in the industry since her early 20s, working both sides of the camera before finally taking full command. You can see this confidence in scenes like a montage of Lady Bird and her mother doing their “favorite Sunday activity,” and have the entire montage be played dialogue-free, with only Jon Brion’s lovely score as accompaniment. Or the scene where Lady Bird comes across Julie crying, and they don’t feel they have to explain why (“I’m just crying—some people aren’t built happy, you know?” is one of the saddest lines in the film).
The sky’s the limit for Gerwig, though it seems she’ll be spending some time yet in Sacramento, with plans for three more films set there (inspired by Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels). If they’re anything even remotely like Lady Bird, they’ll be their years’ Best Picture nominees as well.
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