Coming of age stories have always been a staple of filmmakers. It is a proven avenue leading to the heart of the audience permitting a guaranteed emotional experience. Since the defining characteristics of the genre usually require the subjects be teenagers, the stories are angst-ridden with a penchant for the melodramatic. Alternately, the filmmaker may choose to express the story as a form of comedy running the gamut from dark humor to a ribald farce exploiting the commonality of the coming of age experience. For anyone that has several years watching movies can attest, it is exceedingly rare for someone to present a novel take on this category of story. Director/screenwriter Greta Gerwig has achieved this laudable goal with exceptional results in ‘Lady Bird.’ This movie is Ms. Gerwig’s directorial debut, but I have been an ardent fan of her work on both sides of the camera for years. She came to the notice of cinephiles after working on and appearing in several mumblecore films. Mumblecore is a subgenre of independent film characterized by naturalistic acting and dialogue (often improvised), low-budget film production, an emphasis on dialogue over plot, and a focus on the personal relationships of people. This fostered the development of a community of extremely talented people who would undertake various functions in each other’s projects. This honed Ms. Gerwig’s artistic abilities are providing her with a holistic understanding of every facet of the process. It is evident in this film that she has already taken her place among the upper echelon of cinematic storytellers. This film garnered five Academy Award nominations including two directly for Ms. Gerwig, Best Achievement in Directing and Best Original Screenplay. The other Oscar nods were for Best Motion Picture of the Year and Best performance in a leading role for Saoirse Ronan and Supporting Actress for Laurie Metcalf. The latter is currently reprising her breakout role in television in the reboot of ‘Roseanne.’
Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), is a high school senior in Sacramento, California attending a traditional Catholic High School. Thr thing is, Christine is not traditional. The most significant indication of this is her refusal to be called by her given name. She demands to be referred only by her nom de voyage, Lady Bird. The script provided by Ms. Gerwig successfully manages to craft the character and her circumstances to qualify for inclusion in the genre fully. Lady Bird is at that age where she has begun resist the parental control of her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and fixate on getting away from the family home. Lady Bird has applied to Ivy League universities in "a city with culture." As a young woman of intelligence and sensitivity convinced that she had outgrown the parochial for a nascent sophisticate as herself. The difference infused in the story by its talented filmmaker is a result of her years of experience in independent films. Her close association with such a creative and innovative group as her mumblecore associates has given her a perspective and insight into the human condition not usually found in such an emotionally driven character study as this movie. Lady Bird’s father, Larry (Tracy Letts), recently lost his job understandably causing substantial financial concerns in the McPherson home. This intensified the rift between Lady Bird and her mother albeit remaining within the range of the normal issues between a mother and a daughter of this age. For a film to achieve such universal recognition as seen here, are many factors must work synergistically. A dominant factor ingrained in the narrative is the intrinsic sense of reality that translates into a relatability that carries the story, it also affords the foundation for the amazing character development that is the heart of the film.
Naturally, in relating a story such as this, the ability of the performers to capture the subtle nuances in their characters is more critical than ever. Fortunately, this movie has a cast that is more than up to the challenge. Irish actress Saoirse Ronan undertook the part with unparalleled success. Anyone who has experienced a Catholic School education realizes that is a very specific culture that pervades the students, their parents, and the educators. Not only did Ms. Ronan attend Catholic school back in Ireland where a religious school remained traditionally strict. In an interview, she mentioned that her background enabled to connect on an intimate level while designing her take on the character. The approach taken by their director assisted this crucial aspect of her craft, Ms. Gerwig encouraged her actors to develop backstories for their characters, retaining some details to themselves fostering a realistic dynamic between the characters. Playing opposite, so a gifted young actress was a name that has been familiar to the public for a couple of decades. Laurie Metcalf is one of a growing number of well-established comic actors and comedians that have become increasingly involved with serious dramatic roles. This is proof of the belief that comedy is arguably the most difficult genre to master. The need for precision in timing and mastery of gradations in delivery requires a tighter control than usual. The interaction between these women is an entertaining experience that will transport you into the life of this family.
Rather than a strongly focused plot, the narrative consists of a connected series of near perfectly constructed moments. Each one crystalizes a turning point in life that the viewers can readily identify. There is ease demonstrated by Ms. Rohan in her treatment of Lady Bird. It is obvious that she fully understands the young woman on a deeply intimate level. What is more important is she can convey the emotional state of the protagonist faithfully to the audience. When Lady Bird finally reaches that all-important milestone of her eighteenth birthday she decided to take the stereotype head-on by going to the nearest convenience store and purchases a pack of cigarettes, a scratch-off ticket, and an issue of Playgirl to celebrate turning legal. This is one of a myriad of little moments that we have all experienced. This story primarily targets a younger audience, but the universal nature of the subject matter and the precision imbued by the artists bringing the sensitive and humorous screenplay to life. The relationship created by Ms. Ronan and Ms. Metcalf ranks among the most poignant I have ever witnessed on the screen.
Typically, it is the huge blockbusters that garner the attention among the critics and fans of movies, but this touching, gentle movie outshines most of it sheer craftsmanship. The film is the culmination of years of experience earned by the individual members of the cast and crew that when juxtaposed created something truly wonderful. There is a certain quality about Saoirse Ronan that is captivating bordering on memorizing. In the spirit of full disclosure, I do have a heritage-based affinity for those hailing from the Emerald Isle. Her delivery is impeccable down to a perfect American accent. In interviews, Ms. Gerwig has noted that a substantial portion of the story was autobiographical, an aspect of mumblecore and independent film in general. The issues Lady Bird faces encompass the trials and tribulations a young person must navigate in the arduous transition from childhood to the responsibilities of being an adult. Along the way she has her moments of mischief such as when she bonds with a new friend, (Julie Steffans), by vandalizing a nun’s car. Typically, the most difficult element of a coming of age to is the topic of young love. In all\too many movies in this category, the subject is incorrectly handled either overplaying the awkwardness of a first romance or overly idealizing it. Ms. Gerwig wove a sensitive exploration of this rite of passage concentrating on the emotional vantage point from the perspective of a young woman. The feeling of tenderness and vulnerability pervades these scenes nurtured by the depth and honesty of Ms. Rohan’s performance. This is the quiet film that draws in and inexorably captivate everyone experiencing it.