Marion McPherson and her daughter Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson are returning home from another college tour. They have just wrapped up listening to a moving rendition of The Grapes of Wrath, and are quietly dabbing the corners of their eyes. Christine moves for the radio dial but her mother slaps her hand away; she urges her daughter to pause and reflect on the weight of the story’s parting sentences. With a sigh, Christine stares gloomily out the window toward the Sacramento landscape, saying “I want to live through something.” The rest of Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is an emotional tour de force and exploration of this dream unconsciously coming true.
Saoirse Ronan was an unquestionably perfect fit to play the solipsistic Catholic schoolgirl, Lady Bird. She seamlessly transitions from rebellious to vulnerable without ever turning the dialogue into clunky one-liners or bitter monologues. There is a great sense of personal honesty in her interpretation of the character, which Lady Bird herself aspires to personify.
Lady Bird lives on the self-described “wrong side of the tracks” along with the rest of the McPhersons — a family hobbled by unemployment — with her mother Marion, played by a stoic Laurie Metcalf, near-single-handedly supporting them all. Lady Bird’s future may not be completely under her control, but her personality is. As a film seeking to differentiate itself within the genre of coming-of-age tales, Lady Bird’s favorite method of defying convention is in creating natural circumstances for humor and pain to be fostered, and for the titular character to mature.
Interactions with lifelong best friend Julie, who is played by a spectacular Beanie Feldstein, bring out some of the funniest back-and-forth action outside of a Neil Simon play. Julie routinely steals every scene involving her hopeless crush, the math teacher.
Gerwig has a remarkable knack for juggling her film’s characters so that they never lose their momentum off-screen; although Ronan is in the limelight, she belongs to a constellation of fine performances — especially so with Metcalf. It is remarkable the way that Marion bends over backwards and still manages to be the backbone of her family. If anyone were to be the fulcrum of Lady Bird’s future, it would be her mother; she is the mouthpiece of poverty, voicing a reality her daughter is youthfully blinded by. But as the mother bird that knows instinctively to let her baby learn to fly in free fall, Marion’s restraint is also akin to love. And actions are the language through which the McPherson parents best communicate this with their children.
Despite a largely disappointing side story that needlessly pits father against son for a soulless corporate job, Larry McPherson’s role in the family should not fool viewers. Although he often retreats back into his game of solitaire during many a heated exchange, he nurtures Lady Bird’s spirit as tenderly as his wife does, and is likewise deeply affected by his daughter’s impulsive nature.
Being — criminally so — a man of few words, he develops as another one of life’s punching bags, a punching bag Lady Bird does not realize she has been abusing. The danger lies in how gradual the escalation of Lady Bird’s inattention becomes — a fact only Marion ever seems capable of breaking, adept as she is at playing the bad guy. This familial confrontation marks the first time Lady Bird, along with the audience, identifies the error in her ways; but by then it is impotently too late to apologize, and viewers have crashed directly into the aftermath of her carelessness. Understandably, a fundamental part of Lady Bird’s personal journey is learning firsthand that not all debts can be repaid, nor all damage repaired.
Lady Bird, however, is determined to live life on her own terms, in spite of her mother and the turbulence of navigating her Catholic high school, which proves itself a formidable force that ferries Lady Bird along most of her various life-altering decisions.
She quickly begins to mix and match friends to blend in with different crowds; adjusting herself like the burgeoning socialite she is, much to Julie’s chagrin. Having known her best friend the longest, Julie has a perception of Lady Bird that the audience expects to be one-to-one. As such, when she openly gauges the growing distance between them, it is undisputable and worrying.
Gerwig does not shy away from examining whether Lady Bird can truly be the best judge of herself and implies, with an opening quote by fellow Sacramentan Joan Didion as her epigram that it still takes a village to raise a child, no matter how rebellious or deep into California they might live. Gerwig also strongly believes that there is more to her hometown’s character than fornication and flower children. She said in an interview with Vanity Fair that “home really comes into focus when you are leaving,” and only then can the impression of one’s community be recognized.
Lady Bird’s metaphorical flight out of Sacramento may have truly set her free, but all birds tend to migrate in the direction of home. As a film, and as a character, Lady Bird astonishes with its story and resonates all too well with its audience.