Film review: Lady Bird (Director: Greta Gerwig)
By Sascha Krieger
Adolescence is the time when the individual emerges from the child, a process which involves emancipating oneself from one’s parents, frequently leading to clashes and a once close relationship being so utterly transformed that it can threaten to fall apart completely. This is summarized in Lady Bird’s opening scene: The titular, 17-year-old character and her mother share a moment of mutual happiness during a car ride before an entirely inconsequential disagreement leads to a rather radical separation. A scene which in its miniature characterisation of two strong, stubborn and equally vulnerable and confused women as well as its bitingly sharp humour epitomizes Greta Gerwig’s way of seeing the world and women’s place in it with which she has infused all her characters and which she now brings to her directorial debut. In Saoirse Ronan who invests her Lady Bird with a mixture of stubborn determination and fragile lack of direction and Laurie Metcalfe’s hard-shell and utterly lost mother, Gerwig has tow actresses carrying the film who take the Gerwig model a step further, adding a strength and roughness to it Gerwig’s own characters seldom have. The quirky sense of humour, the contradicting waywardness of characters caught in some sort of in-between and their essential awkwardness remain.
An awkwardness which is at the heart of the growing up experience and which Ronan embodies in a mesmerizing way that manages for most of the film’s 95 minutes to make the viewer forget that at 24 she’s long outgrown that stage of her life, having gained a maturity that only shines through occasionally, not endangering the overall authenticity of her performance. Which is no small feat as Gerwig aims at capturing the twists and turns, the mood swings, perspective changes and focus shifts of adolescence. It does so in its fast-paced and occasionally unnecessarily disruptive editing, in a fragmentary narratives that does present shifting relationships and altered realities often without explaining or leading up to them and a characterisation especially of the titular character no less shifty, abruptly changing and at times almost arbitrary.
Which is the film’s weakness, too. The twist and turns, the fragmented narration can feel a little vain while at the same time Gerwig fills her story with stereotypes – both with respect to characters and storylines. There’s the best friend, unglamorous, dubbed a loser by the rest of the school, but kind and funny, the nouveau riche popular girl, the kind male friend who turns out to be gay, the cool and independent guy who is actually a jerk, the stern possessive mother and the kind, soft father, the combative brother and so much more. Lady Bird picks the wrong guys and is disillusioned, she dumps her friend in order to hang with the it girl, she knows everything only to cling to her mother when things turn out badly, before going her own way, emancipating herself while realising that all wasn’t bad at home and that she is missing things she used to deride.
None of this is new or original, on a story level the film is a parade of teenage coming of age comedy staples, a real cliché fest. So why does it still work to the extent that it does , why is it this funny and touching at times – if one disregards the annoyingly cheesy and rather lazy ending? Mainly because Gerwig and particularly her actors, primarily Ronan and Metcalfe manage to provide the characters with an authenticity and believability, a freshness of dialogue and a gentle sense of irony that lift them beyond the stereotype, that make them come to life, make them three-dimensional in a way only few films of the genre do. This extends to smaller characters who were it not for actors as astute and subtle as Lucas Hedges (as the first love turned gay friend), Timothée Chalamet (as the quiet narcissist non-boyfriend) and Tracy Letts as the kind and tenderly sad father. Secondly, Gerwig – again with her cast’s help – builds the film around strong female characters, flawed, lost, ridiculous, and stubborn, yet also determined and painstakingly independent, compared to which the males look like lost souls looking for direction.
These women manage not only to emancipate from their environment but from themselves, their own self-image and ultimately even the formulaic script. The result is a warm, funny, sharply observed portrait of a coming of age that is confused and emancipatory, brave and cowardly, time-worn and original, full of the individuality that comes from and leads to the universal. And while it has some of the flaws of a directorial debut – formulaic stories, an overemphasis on its narrative instruments and a certain heavy-handedness that invades story, dialogue and editing, Lady Bird moves and annoys as only the spectacle of a child becoming a fully grown individual can. And in its uncompromising female perspective it can help take the genre into the post-MeToo age. Which wouldn’t be a small feat.