At the end of Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Merrily We Roll Along (which is actually the beginning of the story since the musical progresses in reverse chronological order), our three lead characters stand atop their apartment building, waiting to catch a glimpse of Sputnik in the sky as they yearn to conquer the world with their art with the most naïve optimism. They want to grab the world by the horns and ride it into success and happiness. It is the backbone to any successful coming-of-age story: thinking you are better than your current situation, realizing that is not actually the one-hundred percent truth, and maturity being the ultimate goal. Lady Bird, which utilizes Merrily We Roll Along as the production put on in the film’s Catholic high school, excels at exploring the struggle of wanting to break out of your current situation for something more, even if parts of that situation are paramount to your emotional maturation. It’s also extremely funny.
Christine McPherson, who has given herself the name “Lady Bird” instead (Saoirse Ronan), is a high school senior in Sacramento, CA, a terrific model for boring suburbia and actual hometown to writer/director Greta Gerwig. She has a truly overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf), a woman who only knows how to convey her love for her daughter by constantly making Lady Bird try to present herself the best way she thinks she can be. Her father (Tracy Letts) has recently been laid off from his job amid the rapidly changing economic landscape in 2002, as war in the Middle East is rapidly raging. Lady Bird has no academic or extracurricular drive, much more content to snack on communion wafers and goof around with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). That is until she realizes in order to find a way out of Sacramento for college, and hopefully to New York, she probably should get in on something to put on that résumé, which ends up being theater.
Look, any of us out there who did high school theater will find kinship with this movie. Between the awkwardly staged group numbers to wanting to be cast opposite the person you have a crush on, it’s all there. I wish my high school was hip enough to have done Merrily We Roll Along, but that’s another story. Ultimately, the time spent in the theater department is very small, but how the relationships form and grow from that experience effects the entire film, particularly in Lady Bird’s first boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) and how that goes awry. As someone who ended up in theater at the same time for almost the same reasons at a Catholic high school, everything in this movie that I did not observe or experience firsthand.
Gerwig, making her directorial debut, based much of this story on her own life, and that authenticity shows. The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother must be proof of that. It is an intensely combative relationship where most of the time they really do not like each other but deep down their is an intense love there neither wants to admit. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf do not hold back from going at each other head on after the passive aggression gets to a point where you have to explode at the other person, usually Lady Bird exploding at her mother. Letts as the kindly dad who bottles up all his troubles so that no one can see anything but a smile on his face is tragic and warm and lovely.
I do need to stress: Lady Bird is hilarious. From dumb theater rehearsal games to bad teenage philosophizing to just awful things teenagers say to each other, Gerwig knows how to get a laugh from just about every scenario you can think of. Lady Bird is a very sarcastic character who never wants to take things too seriously, and Ronan knows exactly how to play that in a way to make the jokes hit without her every feeling obnoxious or precocious or overly self-aware of the jokiness. A film about a financial struggles, teenage angst, and family fighting without humor could be unbearable, and for a first film, it’s rather remarkable how well Gerwig manages that balance.
Lady Bird is one of those rare movies where I honestly cannot find any faults with it. Visuals, performance, music, editing, everything about it is perfect for what this film wants to be. Not a moment is wasted, and every laugh and emotional beat is completely earned. Greta Gerwig has long been one of my favorite people working in film, both as an actor and a writer, and now that she’s finally been able to sit in the director’s chair, she’s immediately shot to the top of that list for me as well. If her first film is already this excellent, how much better can she get? That is one exciting prospect.
Categories: Film Festival Reviews