Contains mild spoilers
Greta Gerwig’s indie darling film Lady Bird hit theaters with less of a bang and more of an indifferent whimper. On the surface, you may mistake this beautiful and simple film as yet another coming-of-age romantic comedy, and to a degree it is that, but there is a reason it’s sustaining a whopping 100% positive reviews on RottenTomatoes.
While the genre of teenage coming-of-age stories is a tried and possibly overdone carousel, Gerwig enters the scene with fresh air and a unique and relatable spin on the usual plot. While many films in the genre rely on a predictable outline involving rejection by friends, petty fights with parents, and a possible car crash, Lady Bird retreats from the usual and instead relies on building characters, atmosphere, and an all-too-familiar feeling of youth.
Not least in the roster of reasons this film rises above the rest is an astonishing performance by indie darling Saoirse Ronan, very likely channeling a younger Greta Gerwig through her bohemian and quasi-rebellious adolescence. Ronan plays Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, employing a name she gave herself prior to the beginning of the film; a monicker the viewer never learns the story behind, but which is readily fitting to the character.
Lady Bird is looking for an identity while navigating her senior year of high school. I was drawn in immediately because of the familiarity of this quest, which most people learn to cover up but which honestly haunts most of us the rest of our lives. Teleporting back to this season of youth and insecurity was a bittersweet two hour which resulted in hours of thinking about the film afterward and a ringing of nostalgia for the rest of the evening.
Perhaps the most confusing dynamic in the film is Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, executed pointedly by Laurie Metcalf. There were many scenes where I absolutely loved her mom and just wanted to hug her, while others raised my ire and just made me hate her abundantly. I think that describes much of the beauty of the film: It portrays a season of uncertainty through the eyes of Ronan’s Lady Bird, where the characters are not mono-dimensional cookie cutter props, but real and believable human beings. How will my mom react when I do this? How will that boy respond when I sardonically react to the news? She is constantly asking these questions in search of her own identity.
The viewer accompanies Lady Bird as she experiences her first kiss and then loses her virginity in a realistic and thankfully un-glorified way. Even the contrast between the two is heightened when the kiss is followed by skipping and screaming all the way home, while her deflowering is followed by sobbing in the arms of her mother.
We watch uncomfortably as she wrestles with life in the lower middle class, constantly envying the three-story blue house down the road and wishing her family could afford nicer clothes. The pain of this class struggle is accentuated by her father’s unemployment and reaches an awkward crescendo when he and his son unwittingly show up to interview for the same job.
The combination of dozens of such elements are what unite to make Lady Bird a force of cinema. Her experience of life, of reality, of class shame and longing and desire isn’t the raw and rugged beauty we have come to thirst for, but what it does do is remind us that the thirst is there in all of us. Gerwig draws us into the film in such a way that doesn’t let go and makes the viewer forget that they’re not actually a member of the cast. In this intimate saga, we lose ourselves and simultaneously come alive to a hunger for beauty through the soul of Lady Bird. We are reminded of our own awkward hunt for identity.
Upon reaching her desired college in New York City, Lady Bird expects to have found some kinds of answers but, as the tried adage from Alcoholics Anonymous asserts, “A jerk gets on a plane in Sacramento and a jerk gets off the plane in New York City.” She finds herself in the same kind of swirling confusion and search for identity and significance she supposedly left behind in California. However, the only kind of salvation Gerwig seems to offer is the realization that the place where she grew up, the place where she was formed, is actually beautiful when you open your eyes and see it.
In this way, Gerwig succeeds in awakening that adolescent angst which has likely lay dormant in most of us. She crafts the story in such a way that our collective nostalgia is stirred.
Yet what I found happening inside of me is that, rather than operating as a piece of beauty in and of itself, Lady Bird operated more like a finger which points at the sunset. It is not the object of beauty, but rather, it acts as an indicator to the beauty in our own lives. However, the existential world in which the film operates leaves a rather hollow sound resounding in the minds of the viewer. Or perhaps it’s more of a series of echoing questions:
What, exactly, are we pointing at?
Where is this beauty to be found?
Where will this object of our satisfaction be found?
What or who exactly will erase my shame and give me the intimacy I so badly long for?
Rather than offering a concrete answer to any of these, Gerwig settles for a satisfying helping of nostalgia, lousy with the confusion of adolescence and rich with humor, wit, and sharp emotion. Don’t miss Lady Bird, and when you see it, don’t stop wrestling with these questions. They are well worth examining.