As one grows older and poignantly ponders life, thus far, it’s hard not to think about the place and people with whom you grew up. To some, the thought of their hometown sends shivers down their spine. Whereas with others, their love for it is devout. Confusingly mixed somewhere in the middle, Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) seeks a level of independence that comes with leaving home for college. Searching to do so her hometown Sacramento (California), in 2002, the themes of Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird steep themselves in the companionship that comes in family and friendship. Not only does Gerwig construct one of the year’s best films, it’s one of the most self-assured and poignantly crafted movies ever made on the touching intimate connections we as humans have with place, people and a certain period in our lives.
Working as a semi-autobiographical solo debut for Gerwig, who is only 34 years old, her film has little room for any unnecessary clichéd romances, disasters or melodramatic tones. Bestowed with an adoring aura towards its characters, working under the likes of her long-time partner Noah Baumbach and Whit Stillman has imbued her writing with a dexterous and unique tone edge.
A name given to ‘me by me’, Lady Bird is an assured young woman eager to get into a cultured East coast college ‘like Yale but not Yale’. Played by Saoirse Ronan with an alluring vitality, she lives on ‘wrong side of the tracks’ with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), father (Tracy Letts) and brother (Jordan Rodriguez). In Christine’s relationship with her family, one sees the daily struggles and joys portrayed in a manner so detailed and nuanced they clearly come from an emotional place in Gerwig’s heart. Opening with both Christine and her mother, Marion, returning from visiting a local college, whilst listening to an audio tape of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Lady Bird hilariously and dramatically decides to jump out of the car after a short argument. Through such a decision, Ronan’s character is bestowed with a comic and rebellious nature.
At the bottom of her high school’s social hierarchy, with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), the two girls embrace everything about one another. After auditioning for musical theatre together, Christine sees the charming Danny (Lucas Hedges) perform, consequentially deciding to romantically pursue him. A juxtaposition to a formulaic ‘chick flicks’ relationship, their time together is infused with little charms and ticks which fill with their young love with a warmth and affection. After dating Danny, her eyes move towards a more rebellious boy in the form of Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), who consumes himself in philosophical books, rejecting capitalism and plays in a hip band. Nonetheless, his cool aesthetic absorbs the heart of Christine.
Selecting to set her first solo film in the early noughties offers some biographical information on Gerwig’s youth; hearing Justin Timberlake’s era-defining ‘Cry Me a River’ and David Matthew Band’s ‘Crash Into Me’ fills one’s eardrums with happiness. Still, Gerwig’s material foregrounds the distinctive tone of the era; a generation of school kids before mobile phones, snapchat and Kim Kardashian. Similarly, Lady Bird wishes she was living through something – which in fact she is. A post 9/11 world, referenced in a split second shot of a wall mural and TV News, is historically the basis for contemporary Trump America and futile conflicts in the West. Though a nostalgia for a false sense of pastness is inherent in all of us, we all live through something important and pivotal in history.
In her press junkets, the director has frequently discussed casting actors who can ‘hit home runs’ (or a six if you prefer cricket). Specifically, in the casting of Laurie Metcalf as Marion and likewise Tracy Letts as her father, the emotional weight of Lady Bird’s familiar ties rest in their interactions with Ronan. Metcalf taps into an assertive mother who simply wants the best for her daughter, displaying it through a form of tough love. In a delicate line of dialogue which explains Marion’s mother ‘as a violent alcoholic’, Gerwig’s dialogue elicits a whole backstory for Marion, accentuated by the acting ability of Metcalf. Granted the two clash, as any family members do, yet the fundamentals of their relationship is love. In the instance of Letts, he is one of a small number of male figures present in Christine’s life. What he brings to Mr Larry McPherson is a tactile sense of vulnerability and world-weariness, with an undying tenderness for offering support.
Behind the camera, cinematographer Sam Levy creates sumptuous moments with natural lighting, equally filling the frame with the same tender affection displayed in performance and dialogue. Lady Bird feels as though it is constructed by a director at the top of their game, not just starting out. Its charming writing – complemented by Saoirse Ronan and the casts – naturally instils Gerwig’s awkward and lovable screen persona into her directorial solo debut. If I existed in this world, I would indeed vote Lady Bird for President- as she would so want.
Lady Bird has been nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture. It is out in cinemas on Friday, February 16th. On Netflix in February 2020.