Lady Bird and all the images you see in this review are owned by A24
Directed by Greta Gerwig
So who would have guessed the surprise hit of Oscar season 2017 would be an indie coming of age story about a young woman who’s desire to be an artist and to see the world is straining against her down to Earth family that love her unconditionally but are hard on her because they only want what’s best? Admittedly it DOES tick off quite a few check boxes in the Oscar Bait checklist, but then again a lot of movies that SUCCESSFULLY pull this kind of material off really are deserving of all the accolades they get and it’s not often that something receiving THIS much praise from such a large majority of film critics doesn’t have SOMETHING to offer… unless we’re talking about The King’s Speech. Pointless and petty jabs at old movies aside, does this manage to be the critical darling that earned its title by being a superb film, or will the sterling reputation of this film be short lived as it fades into the background like many other supposedly great films that don’t hold up under scrutiny? Let’s find out!!
The movie is about Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who’s about to enter her senior year of high school and is still not sure what she wants to do afterwards which is putting her in constant conflict with her mother (Laurie Metcalf). Okay, well actually she KNOWS what she wants to do and that’s to find an arts college on the East Coast willing to take her in so she can get the heck out of Sacramento and be about as far as realistically possible from the life she’s living now, but her mom doesn’t want to hear all that and is insisting she go to a much closer college. Not helping matters is the fact that her dad (Tracy Letts) just lost their job and is having trouble finding another one which makes the chances of out of state schooling that much more infeasible. For the rest of the year, Lady Bird needs to find a way to escape from her less than engaging circumstances while also just trying to survive day to day life with her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) giving her moral support throughout. Will Lady Bird find a way to fulfill her dream of NOT living in Sacramento? Why is her mom in so hard on her all the time, and is all that Tough Love really helping her to be a better person? WHY CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG!?
There is no doubt that this is a slid movie with great acting, some genuine depth of emotion, and even a few surprises here and there, so I completely understand why this is getting so well reviewed across the board. I’m inclined to MOSTLY agree with that, but there seems to be some aspects of this movie that genuinely annoyed me and is keeping me from falling in love with this movie like so many others are. It ends up feeling a bit undercooked and slightly amateurish at points which is to be expected from such a green director (she has only directed one other movie which was almost a decade ago), but the way this movie meanders around and leaves subplots completely unresolved by the end of the film is not only frustrating but frustrating in that it wouldn’t have taken THAT much more to smooth over those rough spots. Still, while it’s almost the textbook example of what a good indie film should look like, sound like, and be about, it at least manages to be different enough from everything else playing right now which should count for something; especially when it’s done as well as this is. Well… MOSTLY well.
The movie is yet another coming of age story in the vein of Dope, Mean girls, Napoleon Dynamite; opting to look at key moments in a wide breadth of time instead of something more condensed like the films of Richard Linklater and John Hughes. We’re basically on this journey with Lady Bird as she goes through her final year of high school and a little bit after that; so there’s a lot of ground to cover and some things will naturally fall to the wayside as there simply isn’t enough time or focus to go over everything in pedantic detail. That said, there’s an art to doing that where certain events can STILL feel complete even if we don’t go over all of the pertinent details. Napoleon Dynamite in particular is one of the most aimless and plotless movies out there, yet it always feels like a cohesive whole due to how seamlessly it shifts its focus and the way it manages its larger plot threads. The scene of Napoleon meeting Kip’s girlfriend is also planting the later payoff of the big dance number. In the middle of the story about Napoleon being Pedro’s campaign manager, they briefly shift to Uncle Rico’s backstory (the steak throwing scene) without ever making it feel out of place. Lady Bird has great scenes like Napoleon Dynamite does, but that sense of a larger story feels missing and the few plot threads that DO serve a purpose all the way to the end of the film aren’t seamlessly integrated into the more isolated moments. It doesn’t hurt the movie TOO much because the individual moments throughout are so strong, but I wish there was a stronger narrative throughout instead of just watching what Lady Bird is up to THIS week.
Now that said, there isn’t a lot to complain about regarding the actual CONTENT of these scenes even if they aren’t as well stitched together as they could have been. Saoirse Ronan is a phenomenal actor and brings so much humanity to a role that in lesser hands would have come off as overly obnoxious and unrealistic, and for me at least it was easy to relate to her angst and sense of ennui about what the hell she’s going to do with her life or even what she really wants out of it. She’s not so much a REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE as she is a REBEL WITHOUT A PLAN which makes sense for someone that age and it’s rather cringe inducing to watch her flounder for answers and come to some less than ideal solutions, but then again that’s all part of the process. We all have to make these mistakes to find out what’s really important to us and at least Saoirse Ronan makes it enjoyable to watch. It’s very similar to Hailee Steinfeld in The Edge of Seventeen, though much more downplayed to fit with the less exaggerated tone of the movie. I’d say that I PREFERRED the much less somber and grounded approach in Edge of Seventeen which ALSO has the benefit of being a much more tightly put together film, but I can see the appeal of this much less softened look at being a teenage girl who’s having trouble finding her place in the world; not that The Edge of Seventeen is without some serious EDGE to it (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk), but while that felt like a dark comedy presented by way of a generic teen film (similar to the overly upbeat cinematography and music used in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), this feels so much more like someone’s actual experiences brought unfiltered to the big screen. I don’t know how much more HONEST it is than something like The Edge of Seventeen, but it does have that look to it that certainly adds credence to that assertion. Maybe it’s just me, but SOME of the stuff in here feels a lot more movie-ish than the tone the movie is going for which isn’t a BAD thing because I love me some movie magic, but it does feel a bit incongruous at times.
The subplots as well are rather enjoyable (I especially liked what they did with her brother), and the acting from all of our supporting players is spot on with special consideration to Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s overbearing mother and Stephen McKinley Henderson for the few scenes that he’s in this as the drama teacher. Sadly, he has the worst handled role in the movie as he just kind of drops off the face of the Earth at about the half-way point with no real explanation for what the heck happened; but at least he’s fun to watch when he’s onscreen. Similarly I enjoyed Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend and the range of emotions she’s asked to play throughout, but her story ends up petering out towards the end with only a halfhearted wrap up at the end. Yeah, where the main story has some problems with focus and pacing, the subplots and the side characters within them end up getting lost in the shuffle which is a shame considering how many talented actors they got and the interesting direction some of these stories were going. In particular I would have liked to see a bit more of what happened with her first boyfriend, but I guess deviating too far from Lady Bird or pushing her too far away from her own story wouldn’t have helped the structure of this film, but then again the unfinished nature of a good chunk of the script is hardly the BEST possible alternative.
I know this movie is getting rave reviews across the board and I’m not THAT inclined to disagree. It’s certainly an enjoyable version of the type of film that it is, and it’s a pretty decent alternative to the Big Hollywood alternative if you’re looking for that; especially with Star Wars right around the corner ready to devour the multiplexes for the next two months. If you can find this at your local theater and it sounds like something that’s up your alley, I think it’s worth checking out. If you’re not a big fan of indie coming of age dramedies I don’t see this one being the film to finally convince you otherwise which really isn’t a criticism of the movie itself; rather a commentary on how limited the appeal (or perhaps the accessibility) of this film might end up being. Whether that will translate to any sort of longevity is hard to say, but in any case I certainly enjoyed it!