A few days before writing this, I met up with a friend to catch a late movie on Sunday evening. Looking through the showtimes, I was looking for something to jump out at me and Lady Bird caught my eye (I was torn between that and The Shape of Water, but I'll save that for another article if I get the chance to see it). I had heard loads of good comments on Lady Bird, but had not the slightest idea what the film was about. I had not even seen a trailer.
My friend agreed that was what he wanted to see, and we set off to the theater with high hopes, but uncertain expectations. This was the first film I had seen in the theater without an ounce of knowledge on the film's plot, characters or setting, and it was an exciting experience. With no typical two-minute movie trailer to color my perception and no in-depth reviews to describe the thematic elements, it was immersive from start to finish as I became acquainted with each character and watched the events unfold. By missing all of the ceremonial gussying-up of a contemporary major motion picture, it allowed me to witness the film as a film without preconceptions. Lady Bird also elevated this because it is such a realistic depiction of its subject which allowed me as an audience member, and one who is only just past those end-of-high-school woes, to connect so deeply to Lady Bird and her adolescent endeavors.
Let's talk about Lady Bird and realism. (Spoilers ahead.)
Lady Bird follows Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saorise Ronan) and the struggles she faces during her senior year of high school, whether they came in the form of adolescent romance, friendship, popularity or, the most frustrating, family relationships. The time between high school and college is an awkward, in-between time, full of uncertainty and self-doubt mixed with hormones and major life decisions. You're between seventeen and nineteen (Lady Bird is seventeen for most of the film) and the world is asking you a lot of huge questions. Where will you go to college? How will you pay for it? What career are you looking into? What friends do you want to keep around after the pit of hell-fire that is high school ends? Whose dreams are you going to follow, your parents or your own? Lady Bird deals with all of this as she is on course to finish high school and looking towards college.
In the opening scene, we see Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), finishing a road trip of college visits as they listen to The Grapes of Wrath. This touching moment, in which both mother and daughter softly shed a few tears together over Steinbeck's ending, quickly devolves into a typical parent-child argument over Lady Bird's future. This ends with Lady Bird throwing herself out of the car door - flash forward to later on, and she is seen in her Catholic private school with a bright pink cast which matches her short, dyed-pink hair. This sequence shows us a few things: One, Lady Bird and her mother clearly clash over what the right direction for her future is; Two, Lady Bird is a rambunctious and headstrong girl, to the point that she got so fed up with this argument that she herself out of the car in defiance. As the movie goes along, and Lady Bird and her mother continue to clash over college and money, we discover that she is almost a spitting image of her mother who is just as strong-willed.
The dialogue between the two in this opening argument set the tone for not only their relationship for the rest of the movie, but the tone of realism as well. I nearly flashed back to my days as a seventeen year-old senior who frequently worried about the prospects of college and whose main voice of reason, but also contradiction, was my mother. And she wasn't contradicting my collegiate dreams because she didn't believe in me or because she thought we wouldn't have the money to go somewhere, she was simply keeping me realistic. This is similar to what Lady Bird and her mother go through. Lady Bird's father has lost his job. It is set in 2002 and the economic recession and budding Iraq War affect families like Lady Bird's. Her mother recognizes their family's fragile state and wants to keep Lady Bird realistic. The car argument is so natural in its dialogue that the scene feels as uncomfortable as being the friend who stays over at someone's house for dinner only to silently and helplessly listen to your friend argue with their parents at the table.
The backdrop of the film is Sacramento, a place which Lady Bird claims to loathe and wants to leave. She dreams of going to an East coast school in a place like New York City, but her mother wants her to stay in state for the cheaper tuition. The film highlights some of the beautiful areas of the city, and is clearly a love letter from Writer/Director Greta Gerwig who is a Sacramento native. In fact, she even said this in a phone interview, "I wanted to make a love letter to Sacramento as seen through the eyes of someone who can’t appreciate how beautiful it is until she’s going away to someplace else. That’s very true of 17 year olds. You don’t realize how beautiful a place is until you step away." How true Gerwig's words of near-sighted seventeen year olds, because most of us would agree that we loathed the place we felt stuck in, and when we found an escape, we realized that we appreciated that place more than ever before. This is at the core of Lady Bird, and Gerwig's personal relationship with this experience is what allowed her to direct such a thoughtful coming-of-age tale. She's been through it before, and likely, so has Ronan.
Saorise Ronan is the other component which must be mentioned, as her performance as a fiery but ultimately vulnerable teenage girl is what led Lady Bird to the success it found, and led Ronan to a Golden Globe win. Everything we watched Lady Bird do reminded viewers of their time at that age. She fought with her overbearing mother. She flirted with crushes and opened herself up, only to get hurt. She weighed the importance of real friendship over popularity. Through all of this, she made some poor choices, but each of them we understand and we appreciate her as a flawed character even further because her character is a big mess of flaws as all teenagers are.
Lady Bird is a realistic film because the subject and themes which it pursues are relatable, well-crafted and hit close to home. Those who made it knew their characters, plot and setting because it was something they've been through, and it was so accurately and naturally written and acted that it was more an exciting, intricate snapshot of suburban family life than it was just a movie.
At the end, Lady Bird has made it into a school in New York City and arrives feeling hopeful. After a drunken night, she is taken to the hospital only to be released the next morning to the harsh sunlight of an early Sunday morning. Makeup smeared around her eyes and wearing the same clothes as the previous night, she asks a stranger what day it is before finding a church and going in to listen to the hymns being sung. She cries and goes back outside to call her family, but gets the voicemail. She speaks directly to her mother and talks about her first time driving on her own through Sacramento. In this moment, as Lady Bird greets her parents as Christine, she seems to recognize how much she did truly love her hometown and her family. In the haze of adolescence, it's easy to brush the important things aside, and many parents are left rather helpless, in a state of wanting their children who are becoming adults to be happy but safe, without much clue of how to let go. But everyone emerges from the wreckage at some point, and Lady Bird did so after the glamour of college wears off. She appreciates a little church in the morning, and she misses her mom and she fondly remembers the vivid experience of driving through the town that made her.
From start to finish, Lady Bird is a glimpse into what it is like to come of age as a young girl from that era, and a delightful, touching one at that. Its characters pulse with life and its side characters, like Danny and Julie, illustrate their own respective coming-of-age struggles too, while Marion illustrates how parents deal with it all. When I came home from the theater and learned of Lady Bird's Golden Globe for Best Picture win, I knew full well that it deserved it.
Final Rating: 9.5/10