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Lady Bird

The trailer for this one had me puzzled at first. I couldn’t really make heads or tails of what I was watching until I saw those magic words on the screen: “Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig.” And pretty much immediately, I thought “Yeah, this is what a movie written and directed by Gerwig would look like.”

For those just tuning in, Gerwig is easily one of the foremost figures in mumblecore. She made her name with romantic dramedies that are awkwardly neurotic, endlessly talkative, and insufferably white. Among the more notable examples are Frances Ha, Greenberg, and Maggie’s Plan; though Gerwig has more recently stepped a bit outside her comfort zone with 20th Century Women and Jackie, both of which featured two of her best performances to date.

In any case, Gerwig — and the mumblecore movement in general — are such critical darlings that of course her directorial debut came out to a 100-percent Tomatometer. And sure enough, Lady Bird is indeed a good movie. But is it really that good?

Well, to start with, it tells the story of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who — for reasons known only to herself — will only answer to her self-given name of “Lady Bird”. The movie spans her entire senior year of high school in a scant 90-minute runtime without ever feeling rushed, so chalk up one incredible feat of filmmaking right out of the gate. And it’s not like this movie skips any of the huge milestones, either — we follow Lady Bird through homecoming, the school play, prom, Graduation Day, and her eighteenth birthday, right up to her first few days in college. But what’s remarkable about this is that while every event is given its due weight, none of them are overhyped. After all, while these high school rites of passage may be of great personal importance and the product of so many months of planning and anticipation, they’re ultimately mundane in how everyone goes through them and they’re gone before you know it.

While the film portrays that in a masterful way, an exception is made for the selection of where Lady Bird will go to college. This is the de facto main thrust of the plot, as there are so many factors involved. Among them are Lady Bird’s own subpar grades, her total lack of ambition or future goals, and her overwhelming ennui with her home city of Sacramento. Additionally, the film takes place in the school year of 2002-2003 — while 9/11 is still fresh and the Iraq War is just winding up — so there’s a perception that Lady Bird’s precious East Coast isn’t the safest place to be. Oh, and money is also an issue, that should go without saying.

And a lot of these issues come back to her parents. More specifically, her mother.

Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf) is a nurse and the family’s sole breadwinner since her husband (Larry, played by Tracy Letts) got laid off. So Marion has to be nice and supportive for people all day long even as she lives in crushing fear of bankruptcy, on top of the general fear that any kind of harm could come to those in her care. She takes all of this stress onto herself for the sake of those that she loves, and it has to go somewhere, so she takes it out on her daughter. It’s not that she doesn’t mean well or that she doesn’t love her daughter, it’s just that they drive each other absolutely insane in such a unique way that they can’t live without pushing each other.

It’s almost like Marion is convinced that she’s failed as a mother, completely incapable of granting Lady Bird what she needs in spite of her absolute best efforts. And her shouting matches with Lady Bird give a strange kind of comfort by justifying her guilt. Yet it’s entirely clear that Marion and Lady Bird love each other, even if they are so perfectly convinced of their own inferiority that they don’t know how to be a closer family. It’s a complex relationship that’s easier to feel than explain, and major kudos are due all around for making it work so well.

One example of the mother/daughter dynamic concerns the state of Lady Bird’s clothes. The two of them do their clothes shopping at the local thrift store, yet Marion wants their clothes to be kept spotless so nobody can see how poor they are. Clothes, houses, cars, and other such signs of material wealth are a huge recurring motif. So much of the movie revolves around matters of socioeconomic disparity, especially in how it affects high school politics. Sexuality is another prominent theme — Lady Bird and all of her friends are trying to figure out their sexual identity under the shame and repression of going to a Catholic School. So throw religion and homophobia onto the pile as well. In point of fact, the more general concept of identity is made prominent through Christine/Lady Bird’s name. Depression comes up once or twice, with reflections on the relationship between wealth, happiness, and success. And of course there’s a lot about the relationship between parents and children, how one eventually supplants the other, and so on.

But easily the most central theme in the whole movie is love. Specifically, there’s one character who proposes that love and attention are the same thing. Of course we should all know how blatantly false that is, and how it can often lead to abusive relationships. (“He’s only pulling on your pigtails because he likes you!”) Hell, the movie itself seems to disprove the notion, based on how many times Lady Bird gets crushed by unhealthy friendships and romances that she only allows to happen because the right people pay attention to her. That isn’t even getting started on Lady Bird’s best friend (Julie, played by Beanie Feldstein), who nurtures a crush on her math teacher because he thinks she’s such an amazing student.

Rather, the movie implicitly makes a much stronger case for a relationship between love and communication. All throughout the film, we see cases in which the characters are only screaming at each other because of how much they love each other. They’re dispensing the kind of harsh truths and deep emotional pain that can only be traded between people who have known and cared for each other over several years. Moreover, whether it’s keeping secrets or sticking to the silent treatment, the characters are never in greater pain than when they don’t talk to each other.

To be clear, very little if any of this is ever made explicit. It’s really quite astonishing how all of these layers are painted with such a subtle brush. There are so many nuances to be found here, and all of it is used to make for complex and full-fleshed characters. Unfortunately, the film may have been too subtle for its own good. The movie takes such a soft approach to so many different themes that it doesn’t make a coherent statement on any one particular issue. There are so many good little moments to be found here, but no one moment that made me sit up with the realization that I had found a masterpiece. On the other hand, there’s something to be said for a movie that so effectively draws the audience in and invites us to connect the dots for ourselves. I find it safe to wager that no two people would see this movie in quite the same way. Hell, I could probably see this movie a second time and come out of it with totally different viewpoints. There’s a lot to be said for that.

There’s not a single dud in the cast. There are so many incredible Oscar-worthy performances in this piece that I’d feel bad about singling any of them out. So instead, I’ll talk about how Danielle Macdonald is in this movie and only got one line as “Another Young Lady”. Seriously. Take it from someone who’s seen Patti Cake$, this is not a good use of your Danielle Macdonald. But I digress.

The other big star here is of course screenwriter Greta Gerwig. Every single line of dialogue is razor-sharp, which of course makes the shouting matches so much more painful. Yet this also extends to the comedy, which has a quick and stinging sense of humor. There are so many great moments in here, when characters make some withering wisecrack or a remark that shows how dangerously ignorant they are. But then we also have the scene in which a JV football coach is brought in to direct a school play, which of course he does as if he was coaching a football game. It’s funny in its execution, don’t get me wrong, but it’s also broad and cartoonish in a way that doesn’t fit the rest of the movie. Even the “lone wolf anarchist musician” stereotype (referring to the love interest played by Timothee Chalamet) was handled more gracefully and honestly than this.

(Side note: Greta Gerwig is also a Sacramento native and the daughter of a nurse, who grew up in a Catholic all-girls high school. I have no idea how much of this was supposed to be autobiographical, but here we are.)

On a final note, I have to address how inescapably white this movie is, in keeping with most of Gerwig’s other movies. Mercifully, this one is a marginally less offensive case in point, as it’s made perfectly clear that Lady Bird and her family are genuinely poor and not just middle-class yuppies making their own problems (see: Maggie’s Plan). The attention paid to living as a closeted homosexual is another plus. Also, Lady Bird has a brother (Miguel, played by Jordan Rodrigues) who lives at home with his girlfriend (Shelly, played by Marielle Scott). It’s never once explained how Lady Bird came to have a Latino brother. Is this a statement on racial acceptance and the legitimacy of interracial adoption, or a token brown character who got carelessly shoehorned in? I’ll let you be the judge.

All told, I’m glad to say that Lady Bird is a good movie. It’s beautifully crafted, with fine pacing, killer dialogue, and phenomenal performances from top to bottom. It’s funny, it’s incisive, and the characters are nuanced to a deeply impressive degree. But what I keep coming back to is that the movie makes so many small and subtle statements about so many disparate subjects, without making any one huge and mind-blowing statement. That’s pretty much the only thing holding this movie back from being a true masterpiece.

As it is, the movie is totally an awards contender and deservedly so. Definitely worth your time.

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