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Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is a pitch-perfect coming-of-age comedy, starring Saoirse Ronan.
The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote often of attention as a kind of spiritual discipline. Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity, she wrote in her notebooks, an idea she later would continue to develop, eventually concluding that attention presupposes faith and love.
In a Q&A section during a festival screening of her masterful solo directorial debut Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig quoted Weil, and it’s clear from the movie that this spirit of destiny, love, generosity, and attention animates the entire endeavor. Lady Bird appears to serve as a coming-of-age movie featuring the great Saoirse Ronan playing Christine — or Lady Bird, as she’s re-christened herself — and it’s as funny, clever, and filled with yearning as its heroine. Lady Bird is an act of attention, and therefore love, from Gerwig, not just toward her hometown of Sacramento but also toward girlhood, toward the feeling of repeatedly being on the outside of wherever real life is going on.
The film also confirms what movie lovers have long believed: Gerwig is by far one of the most talented moviemakers working today, both onscreen and behind the camera, confident and winsome in a way almost unparalleled by her contemporaries. Lady Bird is the rare film that manages to be affectionate, entertaining, fun, clever, and confident; it’s one of the best movies of 2017, and definitely my favorite.
Lady Bird chronicles one girl’s senior year of high school
Lady Bird starts off with an epigraph, something Joan Didion told Michiko Kakutani in a 1979 New York Times article: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism,” said Didion, leaning to look out an airplane window as they traveled from Los Angeles to her hometown of Sacramento, “has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”
Didion and Gerwig both come from Sacramento, and so is Lady Bird — the name, she explains, is her given name, as “it’s given to me, by me.” She begins her senior year at a Catholic all-girls’ high school in 2002, with her hair dyed pink, a profound love for Dave Matthews Band’s song Crash Into Me, and dreams of leaving Sacramento to go to college in New York City. On her bedroom wall, she’s scrawled a line from Anna Karenina — Boredom: The Desire for Desires. She wants, more than anything, to lead a life that’s the opposite of Sacramento. She wants to be extraordinary.
Lady Bird lives on what she jokingly refers to as the wrong side of the tracks, together with her dad Larry (Tracy Letts), her mom Marion (an exceptional Laurie Metcalf), and her brother Miguel (played by Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelly (played by Marielle Scott). They’re all crammed into a neat but small house; her parents had hoped they’d be able to upgrade long ago, but tight finances kept getting in the way.
Lady Bird bickers with Marion, whose fears about finances and the future of her daughter often lead her to passive aggression, and who keeps on insisting that a California college is the best option. Lady Bird’s freedom from home is at school, where she can hang out with her best pal Julie (the absolutely superb Beanie Feldstein) and joins the drama club as to to pad out her college applications.
Drama is conducted jointly with the nearby Catholic boys’ school and led by Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson). During rehearsals for the fall musical production of Merrily We Roll Along, Lady Bird falls in love with Danny (Lucas Hedges), the sweet redheaded boy from a big Irish Catholic family who turns out to be her first real love, though she can’t help eyeing too-cool-for-school Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) at a party too.
The movie’s arc is deceptively simple, following Lady Bird as she goes through her senior year (which is tagged along by some brilliant editing and a joyful, buoyant score from Jon Brion). She has a hard time with math, kisses Danny and bickers with Marion. She loses her virginity. She and Julie lie on the school’s floor and giggle about sex and chew on unconsecrated communion wafers. They go to mass and celebrate holidays. They dream about the future.
Lady Bird harbors remarkably deep ideas beneath its surface
But there’s a notable amount of depth beneath this seemingly conventional arc. In Lady Bird, director Gerwig has taken advantage of the familiar teenage girl coming-of-age story and turned the plot into something rather extraordinary and meticulously observed, the kind of film that actually unfolds layers on repeated viewing.
Inside Lady Bird are meditations on parenting, on struggling with finance, and on the ways the future is never really what we wanted it to be. But its strongest and subtlest theme is that closely attending to the world surrounding us, and to those around us, is a kind of grace that makes room for us to love.
The movie is mostly told from Lady Bird’s point of view, and like most high school seniors, her attention is all centered on herself and her own troubles. But through the year, a series of small conversations, captured in vignettes and glimpses, punctures her self-involvement. Everything that is going on — heartbreak, embarrassment, disappointment, elation — all of it proves that other people struggle too, whether it’s Julie’s sadness at being left out of Lady Bird’s growing social circle, or Lady Bird’s father’s learning that his best efforts to bolster his career are never going to be good enough.
The biggest problems in Lady Bird’s world lie in her family; they’re struggling with money in a way that a teenager usually can’t fully understand, and when Larry loses his job it ratchets up Marion’s anxieties too. Lady Bird’s longing to get away from Sacramento hurts her mother; her embarrassment about her family’s humble house — especially compared to those of some of the affluent kids at school — hurts her father.
The film’s central situation finds Lady Bird and Marion, in a mother-daughter relationship that’s drawn with rare sensitivity. Marion’s awareness of her family’s money struggles spills over into almost every conversation with her daughter. She calls Lady Bird’s “wealthy friends” with a sort of bitterness that paves over insecurity, and she’s obviously terrified that Lady Bird will look down on her parents. But Lady Bird doesn’t care all that much about the money beyond how it affects her college plans; she’s worried that her mom simply doesn’t like her very much.
The two are in serious need of actually seeing each other, rather than peering through glasses they’ve tinted themselves over 18 years of living under the same roof. Lady Bird’s arc moves toward this point — helped along by the inevitable changes that come with high school graduation and the start of college — and when the realization finally hits mother and daughter that they truly love each other, it’s a rare and grace-filled moment to see in a teen-focused comedy.
Lady Bird is beautifully realized and filled with wisdom
To get all this depth into a film is hard enough; to get it into such a purely enjoyable movie is a small miracle, especially one that’s so loaded with delights. Lady Bird gets a lot about being a teenager right, but it’s especially good on being a teenager during the 2002-’03 school year, right down to the fashions (Lady Bird’s wealthier friends wear the ubiquitous Abercrombie rugby shirts, while Lady Bird’s clothing clearly comes from a thrift store and is a season or two off) and the music — contemporary songs like Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” butt up against the sort of mid-’90s tracks that teenagers of the era grew up listening to, hits by Dave Matthews Band, Alanis Morissette, and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.
Lady Bird is actually about a year younger than Gerwig herself, and though Gerwig’s kept insisting in interviews that the movie isn’t a roman à clef, she renders Lady Bird’s senior year — and the texture of the city where she resides in — with such loving detail that it’s clear how much of it is rooted in a shared reality with her character. Much of that love is directed at the Catholic all-girls’ school that Lady Bird attends (Gerwig attended one also), and especially, headmistress Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), who is a voice of wisdom (and good humor) for the otherwise religiously uninterested Lady Bird.
But the movie sustains a kind of grace and faith, with the school year’s rhythms fitting into the religious holidays that can’t help but seep into Lady Bird’s bones. And it’s Sister Sarah Joan, ultimately, who opens Lady Bird’s eyes to her real feelings about Sacramento. After reading her college entrance essay, she notes that Lady Bird definitely loves the city. You write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care, she tells her. When Lady Bird replies that she just pays attention, Sister Sarah Joan says, Don’t you think they are the same thing? Love and attention?
Lady Bird feels only half-convinced, but by the end of the film it’s evident that the lesson has sunk in. She has, by fits and starts, started to really look at the people around her, and thereby to grow into who she is becoming. Growing up means learning to love the world for what it is — and in making Lady Bird, Gerwig has done the same. Simone Weil would be proud.