Towards the end of 2019, I reviewed Little Women, a very good film directed by one Greta Gerwig, a filmmaker whose stock has been on since their first solo-directed feature, one I made reference to in my Little Women review, and one I shall now get around to reviewing: Lady Bird.
Lady Bird is the genesis point for everything that made Little Women so good, and now having watched it, it’s easier to clearly trace the through-lines of each film, and to properly contextualise what it is that made Gerwig’s telling of the old story feel so fresh and new, it is merely because she was carrying on the trends she started here.
The film belongs to a new school of coming-of-age films told through a modern, and more importantly female, eye. Something we saw last year with Booksmart and Eighth Grade to name but a few, it is easy to draw comparisons with the way this story is told and this new crop of female-centric high school stories that have seemed to emerge in the last few years (although it is worth noting that they are by no means a new thing).
The film follows the titular character (Saoirse Ronan), who gave herself that name, perhaps in a bid to craft her own identity. She constantly clashes with her opinionated mother (Laurie Metcalf) over the direction she seems to be taking in life, as well as discovering relationships with boys, and navigating high school friendships.
It’s a formula we’re used to, the high school set-up is one that stretches back decades, but rarely does a film try so hard to avoid the general stereotypes of high school life. There are characters that would seem like they should identify with certain tropes, but in truth they’re more complex than that, as people in the real world tend to be.
The central theme of the film seems to revolve around relationships, how they develop, and how they might end. Over the run-time, we see Lady Bird go through one of the most important times of her life, namely her Senior year of high school, and along the way, the people around her fluctuate and develop as events unfold.
There’s also a heavy background influence of religious imagery, and Lady Bird’s rebellion against it, she attends a Catholic school, is ostensibly a decent enough student, but she acts out from time to time. Whether that be to impress new friends, or just as a part of her ongoing character development.
The characters are very strong too, with even some of the more periphery characters having complexity and depth beyond the first glance impressions we get of them.
Lady Bird herself is a brilliant character, fantastically realised in all of her different flaws and traits, her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) is her rock, the characters complement each other so well, that when Lady Bird’s focus is drawn to a new set of friends, you really feel an emotional connection, for something we’re so used to seeing in high school dramas, this is quite a feat.
Then there’s her relationship with her mother; possibly one of the most complex paternal relationships I’ve seen in a teen drama, the audience is left frequently wondering where their sympathies should lie when their personalities clash, both are seen as equally flawed in their own right, it manages to hit that sweet spot of engaging the audience without overly-frustrating them. We may recognise the frequent arguments from similar ones we may have had with our own parents or recognise a flaw one of the characters has that we share, that’s what makes the characters so engaging, because of their humanity.
Romantic relationships are also covered here, recognising that as teenagers, they’re bound to make mistakes, the film rarely seems to be taking a moral stance against any of its characters and their dynamics. It may suggest that one character may not be as redeeming as another, but it counterbalances this by showing that they have other traits and interests that might warm you to them more.
There’s a real heart-warming quality to some of the people represented on screen, and how they interact with Lady Bird; in particular her changing relationship with her first love interest hit home for me particularity hard, and it’s played so beautifully and subtly, it’s one of the moments that really makes you warm to Lady Bird as a character, and lets you know that her heart is in the right place, no matter how much she might be pushing against that.
This is helped by having the excellent Saoirse Ronan (always have to double-check that name) portray her. She was the heart of Little Women, and she’s arguably even better here. She seems to so easily inhabit characters that you forget she’s an actor playing the role, she makes you believe in her character, and that’s the sign of a truly great actor.
Her performance isn’t the only stand-out however, there’s Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird’s mother, a kind of ying to her yang, always pushing the characters to her limits, then there’s Tracy Letts as her father, Larry, who’s a gentler influence, a kind-hearted man with hidden emotional struggles that the film handles extremely well. There’s also actors like Beanie Feldstein and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who play characters that add to the cohesion of the world in which the film exists, but far from being part of the furniture, they have their own struggles, no matter how minor a character they seem to be.
As I said in the early paragraphs, it’s easy to see the shared DNA between Little Women and Lady Bird. The dialogue is crisp and believable, helping to round out the characters interactions with lifelike conversations; they also share a colour palate that really brings the visual presentation to life. Using the camera, and the way it is used to enhance the story, and the world that surrounds it.
In short, it’s hard not to love Lady Bird. It’s not a film to watch if you’re looking for escapist entertainment, but a film to engross you in its world and characters, some of which you may recognise from your own life, told in a fresh way by a very exciting filmmaker, who seems to have a very clear voice, and eye for storytelling.
A film of vast beauty, in many different aspects, Lady Bird is the first movie of someone who, in years to come, might be considered a master filmmaker.