Lady Bird movie review: Saoirse Ronan, 23, already has 3 Oscar nominations. What’ve you done with your life?
Director - Greta Gerwig
Cast - Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Timothee Chalamet, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges
Rating - 3.5/5
Speaking recently at one of the annual roundtables conducted by The Hollywood Reporter, writer-director Darren Aronofsky repeated a sentiment that we all understand, but rarely acknowledge.
Across the table, Jordan Peele was talking about how he approached the tricky task of getting (a presumably non black) audience to root for the protagonist of his movie, Get Out, in which a black person finds himself at the mercy of a racist white family. Peele, as you’d probably know by now, succeeded. Get Out was the first real cultural phenomenon of 2017, making millions at the box office and scoring a Best Picture nomination – among others – at the Oscars. Poetically, it arrived almost exactly a year before Black Panther. “And that’s the power of cinema,” said Aronofsky, coming back to the original point. “You can make a film about a six-year-old girl in Iran or an eighty-year-old guy in the UK and if the filmmaking works you can completely connect with them.”
Lady Bird, the new film by Greta Gerwig, is neither Children of Heaven and nor is it I, Daniel Blake, but like both those movies – one of which is about Iranian kids and the other about a British man – it accomplishes that unique feat Aronofsky was talking about. Even from thousands of miles away, it makes you care about the central characters and empathise with their problems like they were your own – because in all likelihood, at some point, they were. Lady Bird is a carefully written, sweetly poignant little movie about a girl coming of age in Sacramento, California, circa 2003. It wouldn’t be too speculative to suggest that it’s the sort of role Gerwig would have easily played herself had she been a decade younger.
Having seen the film – and being a huge fan of her previous work, particularly Frances Ha and her mumblecore phase - it was not surprising to learn that Gerwig was heavily influenced by the movies of Woody Allen – before denouncing him she starred in Allen’s To Rome with Love and has enjoyed a similar New York artsy intellectual reputation. And, after all, casting younger versions of himself is a trick Allen has been returning to for the last couple of decades, now that he’s too old to play neurotic New Yorkers in their mid-30s.
And ironically, for someone who has had a tremendous influence on the work of Lena Dunham, things have now come full circle: Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson, as played by Saoirse Ronan, could easily be Hannah Horvath’s sister. She has that brilliant combination of naivete and narcissism that only seems to manifest itself in teenagers, and entitled white people. Christine is still very much a child when we meet her, oblivious to the troubles of anyone but herself, a state-of-being made all the more irritating by the fact that she doesn’t seem to have any troubles at all.
But being a teenager is in some regard also being a masochist – kids seem to spend a ghastly amount of time inflicting imaginary wounds upon themselves until someone notices. But that is the lesson Christine has avoided learning so far. Once she graduates from high school in a couple of weeks, her quirks will not be entertained anymore. They will be seen for what they really are: the tantrums of a person sheltered by the safety of suburbia.
These are complex and conflicting emotions to project on screen, and Saoirse Ronan is pitch-perfect as the younger Gerwig, having daydreams about living in New York City and attending an artsy college that will inspire her, even if she has neither the grades nor the inclination to make her dreams come true. I read a recent headline that called Ronan “an Oscar veteran” at age 23. It’s true. She’s terrific in the role, creating, once again, empathy where there might not necessarily be any – assuming, of course, that very few of us are teenagers from Sacramento. But chances are, we have all experienced growing pains, and at some point during our formative years, have contemplated poisoning our parents.
Because Lady Bird is very much a two-hander. As much as it is about the life of a girl accepting herself for who she is, and understanding that who she is might not necessarily be who she wants to be, it is also the story of a mother. Laurie Metcalf, also Oscar nominated for performance as Christine’s long-suffering mom, captures the truth of a mother-daughter relationship that I, being neither, cannot fully understand, but can certainly appreciate.
But here’s the problem with this movie. As much as a sign of progress as it was to nominate Get Out and The Shape of Water – a horror movie and a fantasy – for Best Picture Oscars, it is just as unusual for a film like Lady Bird to be among the contenders. None of these movies would have been given the respect that our current cultural climate has afforded them even two years ago. And to be entirely honest, while Lady Bird is an excellent movie and a step in the right direction as far as representation goes, it can’t help but feel like the token nominee. Certainly, several of Gerwig’s older movies were just as, if not more, accomplished as Lady Bird, or films by other directors such as Judd Apatow or Noah Baumbach or Lynn Shelton. But that isn’t the movie’s fault. Divorced of this baggage, it’s a film made with palpable care, even if it can’t help but feel the slightest of all Best Picture nominees.
Watch the Lady Bird trailer here