Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut (she co-directed 2008’s Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg), demonstrates a casual mastery of filmmaking, intuitively changing emotional registers—something essential to the teenage experience, and that is sorely lacking from most movies made about teenagers. One moment Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are in the car, sharing a cry over an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath; the next, they’re fighting—and Lady Bird’s exasperation becomes so fierce and sudden that she throws herself out of the passenger-side door to escape the argument. Lady Bird is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, and escape is all she thinks about; she’s obviously smart and creative but her grades betray her lack of interest in school, which means that the east coast colleges she hopes to attend are pipe dreams made all the less attainable by her parents’ financial troubles and increasingly tenuous middle class status. (It’s 2002, which means that cellphones are still scarce, news of the Iraq War is always on TV, and the Dave Matthews Band is inexplicably ubiquitous on car stereos.) Gerwig’s stellar screenplay has a montage-like quality, unfolding over the course of Lady Bird’s senior year as if a much longer and more sprawling narrative had been whittled down into a series of finely shaped emotional peaks and valleys that feel lived-in but not unnecessarily elaborated on. Editor Nick Houy accentuates Gerwig’s structure, with cuts that cause scenes to begin in medias res or just as conversations are ending, giving the film both an organic rhythm and a restless momentum that feels true to Lady Bird’s longing for whatever comes next.
Ronan and Metcalf are both superb here; their prickly exchanges represent some of the finest onscreen mother-daughter duels since Anna Paquin and J. Smith-Cameron faced off in Margaret. Marion works as a nurse and is often described as having a “big heart,” generous with co-workers and patients alike, but she seems to reserve a level of passive aggression for her daughter that Lady Bird interprets as outright contempt (as she says to a friend, point-blank, “she hates me”). Marion’s devotion to her daughter is just as deeply felt as her frustration: When Lady Bird and Marion comb discount racks for a prom dress, their bickering only subsides at the moment they agree on the perfect one, which is quickly followed by a cut to Marion working alone at her sewing machine, altering the dress while Lady Bird sleeps. Throughout Lady Bird, Gerwig foregrounds the effect that class-based economic anxiety has on relationships and sense of self, an idea rarely even acknowledged in mainstream American film. Tensions within the McPherson household are exacerbated by small spaces like a narrow kitchen and shared bathroom, while Lady Bird passes a much larger house off as her own to impress a wealthy classmate. There’s also a lovely, melancholy montage of mother and daughter touring open houses they could never afford, losing themselves and their conflicts in shared fantasy for an afternoon. That Gerwig manages to evoke so much truth—about mothers and daughters, the Stockholm Syndrome involved in feeling trapped in the place one grew up in, the self-consciousness inherent in an adolescent’s search for identity—within the familiar confines of Lady Bird‘s funny, sweet coming-of-age story is something of a miracle.
Published as part of New York Film Festival 2017 | Dispatch 5.