Director: Greta Gerwig
Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts
I’ve been thinking a lot about homogenised culture and Donnie Darko. Indulge me. I’m 34. When Donnie Darko came out – around the close of 2001, start of 2002 – its 1987 setting felt quirky and nostalgic. The fashions, the mindsets, the music. Maybe because I was younger, but its setting 15 years in the past felt like a wonderfully arbitrary affectation. And it legitimately felt a little distant. This was before the 80s were exhaustively plundered for a new cycle of pop culture.
Lady Bird bares scant resemblance to Donnie Darko – though both are coming of age tales – yet its not-incidental positioning as a 2002/2003 period piece doesn’t generate the same sense of time spent. The fashions are kinda the same, the mindsets also. Justin Timberlake is still everywhere. It’s been the same amount of time between setting and release as when Donnie Darko arrived, but where are the defining cultural clues (aside from references to 9/11)?
None of this musing is wholly material to the film, so forgive me. But one of the many things that Greta Gerwig’s sparkling debut managed to do for me was to reignite this sense of American cultural anonymity since the millennium. Perhaps the differences are the things that are missing?
Anyway, onto the movie, which is a charmer. Saoirse Ronan plays Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson; a 17-year-old resident of Sacramento, California, bursting with a sense of potential that those around her don’t often see in her. Attendant of a Catholic school and vocal in her distaste for her home town, it is time for her to consider colleges. Lady Bird’s family are poorer than the majority of her classmates’. She even lies to a new friend that a lavish local home is her own in order to fit in. The colleges Lady Bird wants – all East coast liberal arts universities – may be outside her price range, let alone academic ability, but she refuses to acknowledge this.
Gerwig has said in interview that this isn’t an autobiographical piece, though the time period is about right. It’s a credit to her refined ability to funnel recognisable truths into fictional characters. Though everything takes place within the giddy sphere of the American indie, the people of Lady Bird feel familiar through experience. Christine herself is hipster (that self-appointed name), selfish and shortsighted, but openly hopeful and also frustrated by the constraints that reality places on her. Like her animal counterpart she wants to flutter and fly. Her rebuke at the world comes from its refusal to let her. Like most teenagers, she sees this as a personal attack.
As knowingly sketched also are her parents. Laurie Metcalf’s harangued but loving Marion is pitch perfect, exemplifying the battle of wills that mother/daughter relationships so often are. She resents her daughter’s eagerness to flee. Tracy Letts, meanwhile, achieves so much with so little. Depression is mocked elsewhere in the film (not a criticism especially; everything is mocked), but Letts’ version is one of the most sensitive and understated to feature in a major cinematic release of late.
The film covers a span of roughly a year, is funny throughout (it’s Gerwig), and stays safely within the comfort zone of its goals. This is a light character piece, one that affords Ronan a well-rounded and interesting spotlight role. We’ve all known a few Lady Birds. I’m sure Ronan has herself. She channels these familiar traits into a character that feels like a person and not just writing on a page.
Gerwig tips toward sentimentality, but doesn’t become crushed by it (a scene involving a series of letters succeeds precisely because we don’t get to hear them all thuddingly narrated; we barely get to see them). And if there is nostalgia up on the screen, it isn’t for 2002/2003 itself; its of a more personal, individual kind. It will come from audience members reflecting on being that age, reflecting on their first times, how they behaved to their parents.
Some might criticise the sing-song playfulness and whimsy of Lady Bird, and it does possess a certain kooky-greetings-card sensibility, but just because the scale is small and the stakes are comparatively low, doesn’t mean that this is slight cinema or in any way a lesser picture than others. What does shine through is that this is impassioned work. Gerwig’s shooting style is in keeping with many of her contemporaries and the names she has worked with before. But through her acting she has already created her own personality and nuance and that is wholeheartedly represented here. This is her film, and its an impressively assured debut, in part because it doesn’t feel like she’s trying to prove anything.
The goals here are to evoke and entertain, and Gerwig – and her entire cast – achieve at both. Smart, wise and pretty, Lady Bird will no doubt give similar pleasures when watched and rewatched down the road. This one’s likely to be a keeper. It’d be nice to see Gerwig use it to springboard into new territories next time, but so long as she continues putting her soul into her work on either side of the camera we’ll all be better off.