Lady Bird.

Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, has been in the news this week as it set a record on Rotten Tomatoes for the most positive (“fresh”) reviews received without a single negative (“rotten”) one, 184 such reviews and counting. It’s a coming-of-age story, incredibly well-acted throughout, with a number of truly hilarious moments in it, enough that I’d join the chorus (if my review counted) of positive reviews … but the movie has its flaws too, particularly in the way the adult characters are written, as if Gerwig, who also wrote the script, put her primary efforts in the teenagers at the heart of the film.

Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is Christine McPherson, who has chosen “Lady Bird” as her nickname and repeatedly crosses out or corrects Christine whenever it’s used to refer to her, a high school senior in Sacramento who comes from “the wrong side of the tracks,” a family of four living in a somewhat run-down house and dealing with the economic insecurity of many Americans in the lower and lower middle classes. Her father’s company keeps laying people off; her mother is working double shifts as a psychiatric nurse; her brother and his wife live in the house as well, both working grocery store jobs despite their college degrees. Lady Bird yearns to break free of the social and financial constraints of her life, to go to college in the Northeast, to experience more than her small* town can give her, so she embarks on a number of small misadventures while also secretly applying to prestigious east coast schools. (*Small is her perception; the Sacramento MSA has 2.5 million people, and the scene near the end where a college student from the east coast has never heard of it is rather ridiculous.)

Ronan is marvelous in the title role, and I would be shocked if she weren’t nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars and just about every other awards ceremony for this year. The script gives her the best material by a wide margin, including the quick emotional shifts of adolescence, and Ronan manages to inhabit this volatile world completely. Lady Bird chafes under any restraints, whether it’s her Catholic high school, the social boundaries of teenaged life, or her domineering mother. Ronan manages to inform her character with the optimism that is part of Lady Bird’s nature and allows her to succeed in spite of all of these obstacles without turning the part into a saccharine caricature.

Her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, is really problematic – and not because the character isn’t realistic. She’s controlling, narcissistic, overly critical, manipulative, even vindictive. She also reveals in a line that appears to be a throwaway that her own mother was “an abusive alcoholic.” She herself is clearly a victim of trauma, and tries to control her environment – including her daughter – as an ineffective coping mechanism. She obsesses over clothes being put away, over Lady Bird using a second towel after her shower, over her grammar or spelling in a handwritten note, over anything that threatens the precise calibration of her life. The writing and the performance are strong and consistent enough that it’s then hard to accept moments near the very end of the film where she tries to show her love for her daughter; they seem to come from a totally different character. Metcalf delivers the best performance of all of the actors playing adults in the film, but I found Tracy Letts, playing Lady Bird’s father, more compelling because his character doesn’t have the improbable personality split of the mother.

The adults, though, are the film’s biggest problem. Lady Bird has the Dawson’s Creek habit of reversing the kids and the grown-ups: The teenagers are the ones who have it all figured out and the adults are the ones still screwing things up or just generally not understanding. It’s truer of the side characters, but it doesn’t do the central character any favors to have her appear more insightful than every adult she encounters. The kids receive the best dialogue and the more accurate worldview – other than Kyle, one of the boys Lady Bird dates, who is busy fighting the battle of who could care less – and in many cases, like Lady Bird, her best friend Juliet, or Danny, another boy she dates, they’re truly three-dimensional and believable, to the point where you could build new stories around any of them (although Juliet does fall into the Fat Best Friend cliché).

The movie soars on the performance and writing of its lead, enough to overcome some of the more hackneyed elements of her environment, and I think that’s why it managed to set that Rotten Tomatoes record – even if you identify the flaws in the script, the core of the movie is so good that it more than mitigates the negatives. Watching this precocious but naïve character navigate her last year of high school and deal with an emotionally abusive mother while stretching for an unlikely escape across the country is more than enough to make Lady Bird worth recommending. I may just be outside the consensus that this is among the year’s very best films.

Comments

  1. I’m probably going to see this tonight. Looking forward to it because I’m a big fan of Ronan.

    Keith, have you seen, or do you intend to see, either The Florida Project our Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri yet?

    • I’m hoping to see Florida Project this weekend and Three Billboards one day next week.

  2. “as if Gerwig, who also wrote the script, put her primary efforts in the teenagers at the heart of the film.”

    well yes.

    isn’t that kind of the point, though? it’s semi-autobiographical.

  3. I can’t wait for Keith’s review of Three Billboards…

  4. Long-time, first-time here, Keith. I took the party scene at the end differently. It’s not that the college boy hasn’t heard of Sacramento but that he couldn’t hear what Lady Bird said over the noise of the party. Perhaps it’s implied that she didn’t speak more clearly because of her mixed feelings about her home town? When asked a second time, she changes her answer to San Francisco, guessing correctly that this answer will land better with her audience.

    • I thought of that interpretation too, but couldn’t quite buy into the idea that she didn’t want to be from Sacramento, if that makes sense? She seems to have at least some affection for the place. I could easily have it wrong.

  5. Well written review — put into words what I thought (or, better said, what I didn’t quite know that I thought until I read this). That said, absolutely loved it despite the flaws.

  6. I saw it last night. I agree with what Jimmy said about the college guy just not being able to hear her. I think she changed her response because she’s insecure about what people will think of her. After all, she’s from the wrong side of the tracks.

    I thought the film was good, not quite great. The performances were really strong. Ronan will be nominated and I suspect that Metcalf will be, too. There were a few things that bothered me, such as the mother being a little underexplored as a character and the subplot with the priest being dropped. Ultimately this feels like a film that will get nominations for acting and probably writing, but maybe not picture and directing. We’ll see.

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