[TIFF 2017] REVIEW: ‘Lady Bird’ is an unforgettable debut, powered by striking authenticity

Saoirse Ronan as Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson in  Lady Bird , directed by Greta Gerwig.

Saoirse Ronan as Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson in Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig.

One of my favourite foundations for a movie is a young character with improbable confidence. Whether it’s Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) in True Grit or Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman) in Rushmore, there’s something instantly charming and loaded with potential in a character who knows their own mind, and charges forward in a world of adults. They’re often the product of an unusual background, and they continually baffle those around them, but there’s a sense that once the wider world gets a few knocks in, their smarts will see them through.

You can add Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) to that pantheon. As the main character of actress Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, Lady Bird is the type of character who reminds you of all the people you know who cut across the grain of life. They’re intelligent, indefatigable (to a point) and prone to making a mess of things. In this way, Lady Bird feels instantly authentic – and that’s before Gerwig even begins to unveil all the careful observations and details that make her first feature such a beautiful piece of work.

Lady Bird is a high school senior at a Catholic private school in Sacramento (Gerwig’s real-life hometown). She comes from a lower-middle-class family, but her parents Marion and Larry (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts) work like crazy to afford the tuition: Marion pulls frequent doubles at the psychiatric hospital, and Larry, an accountant, tries to stay afloat in a cutthroat business world that values youth. Despite their efforts, Lady Bird wants more: she wants to attend expensive liberal arts colleges on the East Coast, and is desperate to be welcomed into the rich-kids clique at school.

The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is central to the film.

The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is central to the film.

These aspirations frustrate everyone around her, especially Marion, who’s a study in contradictions: a loving woman who wants her son (Jordan Rodrigues) and daughter to better themselves, but believes that it can only be done through rigid self-discipline, and not through chasing impossible dreams. This drives a wedge between Marion and Lady Bird, a conflict that may feel painfully familiar to anyone with an artistic bent. It culminates in a wrenching moment when Marion drops Lady Bird off at the airport: Gerwig holds the camera on Metcalf’s face as an array of emotions wash over her: anger, determination, regret, hope. You find it hard to decide who you agree with: both mother and daughter feel validated in their positions, diametrically opposed yet remarkably similar.

The resonance of this material is helped in no small part by Gerwig’s screenplay, which she loads with dialogue that sounds like a transcript of thousands of family arguments, especially families under financial constraints. Gerwig has a keen ear for these kinds of relationships, and it results in a movie that feels paradoxically lived-in and fresh. And make no mistake – the film is undeniably a comedy, featuring some of my favourite witty and situational humour of any film I’ve seen so far this year.

There’s so many bits and pieces that grant the film its lovely texture. Lady Bird and her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) snacking on unconsecrated communion wafers while they trade dirty stories. Marion referring to only being able to do a “small Christmas” this year. Improv games in theatre class, shopping in thrift stores, and Marion and Lady Bird bonding over their favourite Sunday activity: touring open houses in wealthy neighbourhoods. The extent to which any of this is drawn from Gerwig’s own upbringing doesn’t matter; however she came by these reflections, she shows off her instinct for cinematic portraiture.

Many actors get to a point in their careers when they realize they want to direct. The ambition is common enough that it’s often parodied, and not every actor who tries it makes an impact. Some actors – Clint Eastwood, George Clooney, Ben Affleck, and Kenneth Branagh – have become thoroughly respected filmmakers, but as a subset of a too-sparse female cohort, the number of successful actresses who direct is vanishingly small. Sofia Coppola, Angelina Jolie, and Sarah Polley are among the few with widespread name recognition.

So when a young actress like Gerwig decides to knuckle down and jump into the director’s chair, it’s simultaneously a risky venture and one that should be enthusiastically supported. There are many layers in Lady Bird, including the coming of age of a young woman, the struggles of low-income families, and the perils of thinking you’re smarter than everyone else. It’s hard to ignore the parallel between Lady Bird’s clear-eyed, yet far from guaranteed, quest and Gerwig’s career move. But if Gerwig continues on the path suggested by this first step she’s taken, I couldn’t be more excited to see where she goes next.

Lady Bird gets four stars out of four.

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Stray thoughts

  • Clips from this movie feel destined to pop up in “best one-liner” supercuts of the decade
  • After his work in Manchester by the Sea and now here in Lady Bird, Lucas Hedges is setting himself up as a masterful scene stealer
  • I hereby nominate Tracy Letts as “Best Movie Dad” for 2017