' ' Cinema Romantico: Lady Bird

Monday, November 20, 2017

Lady Bird

“Lady Bird” takes its title from the nickname that Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a 17 year old living in Sacramento, gives herself. There is no real meaning to this nickname beyond the nickname itself; it is a means to assert her individuality. Of course, claiming your uniqueness through a moniker that has no real meaning is pretty funny. If her parents wanted her to be called Christine then, dammit, she will go by Lady Bird, end of story. It’s youthful rebellion, in other words, driving the action of “Lady Bird” forward while indelibly embodied in Ronan’s performance, her astonishing verisimilitude underscored by the very real acne she allows to adorn her cheeks, playing every scene with a simultaneous confidence and insecurity, convinced she knows everything, terrified she knows nothing. And Ronan is matched every step of the way by Laurie Metcalf who outfits the role of Marion, Christine’s mother, with a wearied warmth and candid irritability befitting the elder trapped inside a teenager’s tempest.

This tempest is evoked straight away in the opening scene where mother and daughter return from a college visit in the car. If at first they are bonding, weeping while wrapping up a book on tape of “The Grapes of Wrath”, they quickly pivot to an argument about Christine’s desire to attend an out of state school. To Marion, this is out of the question, and the argument escalates so quickly and fiercely that Christine hurls herself from the car while it’s moving, portrayed as equally funny and frightful. And if the subsequent cast on her arm is no doubt courtesy of Marion, Lady Bird still scrawls “fuck you, mom” on the plaster, illustrating the idea of her mother as protector and antagonist, though too often Christine remains blind to the former. Later, when she announces plans to spend Thanksgiving at her boyfriend’s, the scene concludes by lingering on a shot of Marion which Metcalf invests with the melancholy of a mother getting left behind.

This cut is evidence of just how much thought director Greta Gerwig invests in the film. Only her second directorial credit, she is not all the way there visually, sometimes imbuing less a sense of exact place than the conclusion’s hymn to Sacramento would suggest. Then again, Gerwig, who also wrote the script, has considered these characters, all of them, from the McPhersons on down to the smallest supporting parts, writing them real lives that are often illustrated in just one line, and so in some sense this kaleidoscope of people emerges as the place more than any actual locales. What’s more, even if Gerwig sets the film in 2003, she thankfully forgoes a nostalgia trip, employing The Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash” not as some bout of retro snootiness but a lighthouse of cheerful uncoolness and utilizing the invasion of Iraq as a backdrop to a teen’s self-centered disinterest in global events.

The McPherson family is something like lower middle class, but Gerwig does not romanticize their semi-grubby conditions nor blithely present this fact and then pass over it. Instead it informs every aspect of the McPhersons’ lives, from Marion and Christine browsing clothing clearance racks to mother admonishing her daughter for using two towels when one will do. This economic quandary is an outgrowth of Christine’s father, Larry (Tracy Letts), losing his job, which Letts plays, particularly in a scene where he goes for a job interview, with a reluctant dignity, almost as if he is letting us see how his character knows the 21st century is already beginning to pass him by. And when Marion tries to explain Larry’s subsequent depression to Christine, the comical, revealing dialogue emblemizes much of Gerwig’s writing, where a bunch of bromides become like ping pong balls in a verbiage machine, desperately bouncing around until Christine, in a side-splitting line recited with pitch-perfect guilelessness by Ronan, sees right through the b.s. of mom’s pitch.

If we are conditioned for a monetized elixir to appear, that never happens, unless you count financial aid, though even that is a rigmarole, with father and daughter sneaking around behind mother’s back to apply, underlining a familial rift that never really gets closed, wrenchingly captured in the closing scenes where we see Marion pull away in the car from the curb. As she does, we just make out Christine and Larry over her shoulder and out of focus. The camera remains on Marion as she drives away, only to realize too late that she’s made a mistake, the agony of which Metcalf beautifully lets fill her face. And if so often movies allow emotional reparations to be healed just in time for the climax, here “Lady Bird” brilliantly and boldly barrels right past that little cinematic white lie as it does so many others.

Indeed, what is most remarkable about Christine is her distinct lack of remarkableness. She’s in the school play, but only in some background part. She wants to be on the math team, but her grades are not good enough. That is not to suggest “Lady Bird” sees her as un-special. To the contrary, she is a teenage girl in Sacramento in 2003; that in and of itself is special. This, however, is knowledge that Christine struggles to grasp, which is how she alienates her best friend and briefly winds up part of the wrong clique, moving through her senior year seemingly in search of an identity, her coming of age authentically rendered not as a fairytale but a wobbly ride.

And though the film is packed with the trappings of coming-of-age movies, Gerwig does not skewer or dissect those trappings so much as willfully embrace them to uncover their multitudes of truth. If so often movies place outsized expectations on life events, “Lady Bird” is reclaiming their meaning, how moments like prom, graduation and the first time you have sex are not always revelatory in the ways you expect nor the pinnacles of adolescence. They are merely way stations of a whole journey, one that “Lady Bird” captures with resounding clarity in its denouement, where Christine kind of ascends one hill to find another one waiting, if nevertheless now equipped with enough newfound wisdom to go try and climb it.

1 comment:

Alex Withrow said...

Great review. I love your final paragraph so much, it speaks so well to the strength of this movie. Lady Bird didn't try to make those milestones look like The Best Thing Ever. Instead, they are presented as messy, awkward, real occurrences. I really appreciated that.