Sacramento's finest flower
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Nominated for five Academy Awards including Best Picture but going home empty-handed, Lady Bird remains one of the best films of 2017, and has just been released on DVD by A24/Lionsgate. Lady Bird purports to be a teen comedy, but its universal appeal rests on how we become the persons we are, zeroing in on that tricky developmental phase between end of adolescence and young adult. While personal crises and historical events can impact us, Lady Bird suggests it is small, seemingly insignificant moments with family and community that help shape us into who we become. This movie is a triumph on so many levels, because although it depicts adolescent rites of passage (school musicals, prom, applying to colleges, first love) we've seen many times, its perspective is so fresh and the character of Lady Bird so winning, it's as if you are seeing these events for the first time. Her experience is our experience, yet unique. We see her vulnerability as well as her exuberance. We care about all the characters because they seem authentic. Plus they get to speak astute, witty dialogue.
The first scene catapults us into the main love story of the film and its central conflict: mother/daughter. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, perfection) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf, brilliant), returning from visiting local college campuses, have just finished listening in the car to an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath, causing them both to cry. Instead of reveling in this mutual moment of tenderness, Marion criticizes her daughter. Feeling at the end of her rope, Lady Bird opens the door of the moving car and pushes her body out to the ground, breaking her arm in the fall. She writes "Fuck you Mom" on her cast.
Lady Bird is a 17-year-old senior with dyed red hair, attending the Catholic high school Immaculate Heart (which she calls Immaculate Fart) in Sacramento ("the Midwest of California"). Born Christine McPherson, she has renamed herself Lady Bird. The movie focuses on Lady Bird's transformation during her final high school year, especially her rocky relationship with Marion. Both are strong-willed, opinionated, and stubborn women. Marion sees Lady Bird as a dreamer cut off from the realities of life such as her father Larry's unemployment, branding her as selfish and ungrateful. Lady Bird views her mother as judgmental, a control freak, and impossible to please. They continually shout, guilt-trip, and shame each other, saying things they shouldn't. In other words, this is a true, no-rose-colored-glasses relationship, where they are attempting to love each other despite their mutual objections.
Luckily, Lady Bird's depressed father Larry (Tracy Letts, exquisite underplaying) is the calm in the storm, her ally willing to help her get the financial aid she needs to escape from her mother to attend college back East ("where culture is"). Lady Bird is a juxtaposition of contrariness: idealistic and hypocritical; self-centered but a caring heart; a self-confident free spirit but yearning for parental approval; ambitious but not sure where she wants to go. "I want you to be the very best version of yourself," says Marion to Lady Bird as they shop for clothes in a thrift shop, to which she replies, "But what if this is the best version?" Her machinations include trading in her loyal, longtime best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, a revelation) for richer, more popular girl Jenna, even lying about where she lives ("on the wrong side of the tracks") to make herself more socially acceptable. She becomes infatuated with two guys who aren't right for her. She has her first kiss with theater geek Danny (Lucas Hedges, dreamy and versatile), yet discovers he has sexual identity issues. She shares her first sexual experience with a self-absorbed, uber-cool bad boy named Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, a reversal of his character in Call Me by Your Name), who lies as much as she does. But the pivotal scene occurs when she meets with Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith, beyond magnificent), the principal, who has read Lady Bird's college application essay. "It's clear how much you love Sacramento," Sister Sarah remarks. "I guess I pay attention," Lady Bird replies. "Don't you think they might be the same thing?" asks the wise nun. "Love and attention?"
Lady Bird seems to be waiting for her real life to begin, but the movie argues that she is already becoming who she is supposed to be. She makes several bad decisions and makes some cruel remarks, yet better to do this on her own than follow a script others have written for her. In the "Realizing Lady Bird" featurette extra, writer-director Greta Gerwig confesses that the film was inspired by events in her own life: "None of it really happened, yet it's all true!" She artfully observes that we often deny where we came from (Lady Bird lies at one point, saying she's from San Francisco), then realize later that it was a beautiful place. Such insight gives the film humanity, pathos, and warmth, not to mention humor.
Religious themes, especially learning to love unconditionally, subtly pervade Lady Bird, and for once Catholic nuns and priests are shown to be real people, not villains or cardboard characters. Gerwig has been known best for her dramadey performances in Frances Ha, Mistress America, and Maggie's Plan. Her partner is writer-director Noah Baumbach (The Squid and the Whale), from whom she has learned much. But her talent and artistic vision are her own. With Lady Bird, Gerwig marches to the front ranks of not only women filmmakers, but of all movie directors.