The teenage bildungsroman is a common narrative formula. Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s directing debut (she also serves as screenwriter), may be another addition to the list, but it does not feel like another tired addition. If anything, it exists in this long line of coming of age films as as much of a standout as the film’s eponymous role: a personality so bold and big but also honest that it demands to be taken on its own merits.
This is undoubtedly caused by Gerwig’s distinct presence. Even as a first-time director, it is clear that this is uniquely her film to make, and the existence of her on-screen personality embodied by Saoirse Ronan in the lead role seems no coincidence. Were it not for the age of the character, Gerwig could have easily placed herself in the role.
Still, Gerwig gives the film her voice from behind the camera. There is an energy to the film—in its writing, and editing, and tone—that breathes life into even the most well-worn cliches of the coming of age tale. Namely, the film controls the parent-child relationship strife that is so common in this type of film in a way that makes it the most enriching vein that the film explores.
By that same token, that the film does decide to explore so much with so little time is perhaps its biggest shortcoming. There is a scattered nature to some of the film’s narrative elements that cause them to be less emotionally valuable than they perhaps could have been. Nevertheless, the relationship at the core of this film—between Ronan’s Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and her mother (Laurie Metcalf)—is strong enough on its own to merit the film’s existence.
What really drives Lady Bird home, though, is its cast. Ronan leads every scene as we follow Lady Bird’s turbulent final year of high school, and her performance matches the bravado of Gerwig and adds a complexity of teenage emotion that is wonderfully natural.
The true standout performance of the film, however, is Metcalf. Do people still refer to acting performances as “revelations?” Always seems a tad hyperbolic, but how would you otherwise describe Metcalf in this role? She doesn’t really reveal anything. Her character, conversely, actively conceals, hiding layers of reality under a stern exterior. Maybe the revelation comes in the form of how easy it is to be rapt by how convincing she is in what could have been the film’s most cliched moment—an airport saying-goodbye sequence—in which she truly becomes the emotional heart of the film.
As previously stated, there are aspects of the film that get in the way of this emotional heart. There is a way to Gerwig’s dialogue that at times fights with what is emotionally arresting about Lady Bird. Generally, characters don’t always say exactly what they are thinking with blunt wit, but that is outside of this movie. Rarely do characters in the film hide their true feelings (which make the roles of Metcalf and Tracy Letts, who plays Lady Bird’s father, all the more interesting and necessary).
The film is cluttered with opposing layers of honesty and humor that sometimes cohere into a wily, sentimental bildungsroman. Other times, scenes read like anecdotal incident because the tonal layers do not cohere.
What remains is a central narrative between mother and daughter that is at times flooring and always compelling. While there are points that actively pull us away from this center, Metcalf and Ronan do the work of bringing us back into the reality of the film after each diversion. Lady Bird is an inspired first foray into directing for Gerwig. Even when it stumbles, it stumbles gracefully.
Lady Bird: B+
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)