TELLURIDE FILM REVIEW: LADY BIRD is Greta Gerwig’s Hysterical and Moving Directorial Debut
Indie moviegoers are fans Of writer/actress Greta Gerwig, a marvelously talented, hipster-like gal with an affected voice that, if I did not know any better, I would compare to a young Woody Allen. She wowed us with her sensible performance and her clever writing in Frances Ha, and with other small hits like Maggie’s Plan. Now, at the Telluride Film Festival that arguably propelled her career, she has debuted the first movie she has directed on her own, Lady Bird, and it is a gem of a little picture.
The year is 2002 and the talented (and also surging) Saoirse Ronan is Christine McPherson, a senior in high school in Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up), as she navigates all of the anxieties and toils of a growing teenager deciding where and how far to go to college. Christine, like all girls her age, has quirks and habits that may seem silly and even obnoxious to embittered, grumpy adults, but that shine for their sincerity in this movie. First and foremost, she refuses to accept the name her parents have given her, insisting that she be called Lady Bird by friends and teachers alike. She gets anxious about boys: first she falls for Danny, an awkward kid from theater played by the talented young Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea; later, she becomes infatuated with bad boy Kyle, played by Timothee Chalamet in his breakthrough year (he also stars in Call Me By Your Name this year). Lady Bird dyes her head red, is bad at math class, and stresses about losing her virginity.
And, oh, most importantly, Lady Bird has a conflict-laden, infinitely complex love/hate relationship with her oppressive mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Marion is overbearing but clearly loving in her own ways, perpetually stressed about the family’s deteriorating financial condition after the father Larry (Tracey Letts) loses his job, and always careful to make sure Lady Bird keeps up with the Joneses. For all of her at times demonic honesty with her daughter, Marion is positively terrified that she will lose her if Lady Bird decides, as she has threatened, to go east for college.
Thus we are taken on a journey of Lady Bird’s final year as a high schooler, with the ups and downs of boyfriend and school problems, as well as on again off again relationships with her girlfriends, ala Mean Girls style. Yes, Lady Bird is a movie that contains hues of many others you have seen before, including Lindsay Lohan’s film, Easy A. Coming of age stories are not at all new, and this movie fits comfortably within that genre.
But Lady Bird separates itself from the bunch thanks to the relationship between the titular character and her mother, an at times traumatizing volley that in the opening sequence pushes Lady Bird to the brink of physical insanity. Metcalf infuses the character with a complex honesty, with impossible to pigeonhole actions that have you begging for more. Gerwig is clearly writing about her own experience, which again is nothing new, but in this case is done with such exquisite detail and inventive hilarity that you appreciate it at least one step above and beyond the typical teenager anxiety movie.
Lady Bird is a love letter to being young and to growing up. While it seems as if the general attitude of grownups towards teenagers (certainly towards Millennials) these days is to dismiss them as brats (and, by the way, Lady Bird of course is a brat), Gerwig embraces them for who they are, reminding us gently that we too were once in similar positions of anxiety, questioning, and wanting to scream at the top of our lungs. The arc goes where you would expect it to—both women need to learn important lessons that they do learn—even though the last few minutes feel either added in haste or not sufficiently developed.
It is a joy to watch the product of personal labor play out on the screen, to witness a filmmaker’s own experience transformed into something we can all relate to. And it is not just that Lady Bird is an inspiring and nostalgic movie, it is at all times a hysterical one (except for one ill-timed cancer joke). You will remember how great and how horrible it feels to be that young again, and that is undoubtedly a good thing.
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