I generally don’t like high school movies. I think I’m the only one I know who doesn’t like The Breakfast Club. I hated high school, so returning to it through a movie is usually not nostalgic for me at all, but just reminds me of a life that I’m glad is over.
But there are notable exceptions. Lady Bird is now one of them.
The movie takes us through Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s senior year of high school in 2002, as she prepares for college, contemplates sex, gets herself into various shenanigans, and experiences some serious senioritis. Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn, The Grand Budapest Hotel) is fantastic and makes us love 17-year-old “Lady Bird,” as her character insists on being called.
Lady Bird is at once unique and familiar, charming and incorrigible. She attends Immaculate Heart High School in Sacramento, California, and doesn’t love it (for now). In between classes, chapel services, and working at a coffee shop, she longs for New York City, and expresses nothing but disdain for her home town.
Lady Bird doesn’t just long for New York, she acts as if she’s already been cultured by the city life. “You haven’t even been to New York,” her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, Neighbors 2, Fan Girl) has to remind her. Lady Bird is humorously pretentious, and yet quite genuine. As a Brooklyn resident, I can tell she belongs in the city.
Lady Bird’s mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf, Toy Story, The Big Bang Theory) does not want her to go to New York. As is often the case with high school girls and their moms, Marion and Lady Bird have a hard time getting along. They have an essential, irreplaceable mother-daughter connection that keeps them close, but it is accompanied every step of the way by arguments and insulting language. I know it well from watching my mom and sisters.
While Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother is a major theme, it is hard to say what the exact plot line is. It’s basically Lady Bird’s senior year and all the complications and character growth that entails. Luckily for us, the movie is quite enjoyable this way, without clear rising action, climax, and whatever.
One of the things I love about the movie is that all the characters are given depth and treated with care. It’s not just a movie about Lady Bird, it’s also about her mom Marion, and her loveable and sad father Larry (Tracy Letts, Elvis & Nixon, The Big Short), and her humble friend Julie, and her tender boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea, Moonrise Kingdom). It is also a touching ode to the city of Sacramento, clearly written by an adoring native.
It reminded me of how I think of Richmond, Virginia. When I lived there after I got married, I didn’t appreciate it, obsessed as I was with moving on to the next thing (which happened to be going to grad school in New York City). Now, I think of Richmond with nothing but tenderness and love, remembering not just my friends and family, but the neighborhoods, the windy roads, the breweries, and the parks. I often long to go back, and when I do I revel in its glory.
Lady Bird is the kind of movie that actually feels autobiographical. No supporting character is one-dimensional, and we never stop caring about any of them. They all have their own stories, so that even if we only catch a glimpse of them, we know we are peering into an entire world. It seemed to me like the characters have so much depth because the writer actually knows them in real life.
And, indeed, director Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America) is from Sacramento, she attended a Catholic high school in 2002, wanted to move to New York, and her mom, like Marion in the movie, was a nurse. She has definitely put a lot of her own story and soul into this movie. The character Lady Bird even has Gerwig’s charm and wit.
Unfortunately, many of the movie’s best lines are in the trailer, and after hearing them already, they didn’t drop as hard when I watched the movie. (I’m really beginning to hate trailers.)
Some of the more serious moments of the movie do not drop as hard as they were meant to either. Much of it is touching and even poignant, but sometimes it aims for higher than it achieves. There’s an inordinate amount of jump-cut sequences, wherein periods of time are covered in a matter of seconds. I found myself at times wanting the movie to slow down a little.
Nevertheless, this is the first time Gerwig has written and directed a feature film on her own, and it has a shine that suggests her best work is ahead of her. The influence of director Noah Baumbach, whom she has worked with before, will be clear to those familiar with his work, but it is also clear that something new is revealing itself here.
Altogether, Lady Bird is a solid, good movie. As far as first efforts go, I have no real complaints. It’s funny yet touching, light yet deep, and is a joy to watch. It’s a coming-of-age story about girlhood, but it is also a nostalgic reflection on what it means to have a home town, and one that made me appreciate my own.