I’ve been meaning to write something about Lady Bird since I first saw it (I’ve seen it twice now) but I’ve struggled to find a proper analysis. There are things I love about the film and there are things that bug me about it, so I decided to do a case for and a case against Lady Bird being a great movie.
The Case For: When the film is functioning at its highest level it is because the writing is truly exceptional. The two main characters have a distinct voice and come from a place we can all imagine or have been. “Lady Bird”, herself, is, at many times, many things at once: awkward/outgoing, responsible/immature, confident/ashamed. These are real characteristics and emotions that we feel through not only the actor’s portrayal of the character (played beautifully by Saoirse Ronan) but also the writing and the exquisite direction of Greta Gerwig. It’s easy to write a scene where a character displays a layer of their being; in cinema this is done by showing characters make choices. Through choice, true character is revealed.
The most difficult thing to do is to write a scene where a character shows the audience who they are, while concurrently subverting that very moment by showing that character may not be that at all, and Gerwig does that several times.
A tiny, humorous moment early in the film shows that “Lady Bird” is running for class president and has chosen to advertise her candidacy with images of herself with a bird head on posters. She gets into a bit of trouble with the faculty for this imagery but “Lady Bird” assures them there is nothing to worry about because her candidacy is an annual tradition that never amounts to anything.
Taking into account that minuscule scene alone, what are we to believe of “Lady Bird’s” desire to be president? Does she actually want the attention and respect of the position by her classmates or does she bask in her anonymity at school so emphatically that she tests it by running for class president every year?
This is a microcosm of a well-drawn and thought-out protagonist. And this is without mentioning the character who would most closely resemble an antagonist, her mother, who is most integral in forming our picture of “Lady Bird”. The relationship between these two is central to the film and the building block of the story.
The mother is a woman struggling with her daughter’s loss of adolescence, her son and daughter-in-law’s indifference to society, her husband’s mental and financial woes and maintaining the secrecy of both, all while shouldering the burden of being the de facto matriarch. Not to mention, she works double shifts as a nurse in a Mental Hospital due to the financial situation of the family. She is trying to keep the family afloat, both financially and existentially, in a life she never dreamed she would have to endure.
To watch the encounters between “Lady Bird” and her mother is a truly emotional experience due to the writing and the depth of their characters. When her mother casually says something brutally awful to her, you feel the hatred well up inside you the way it does inside “Lady Bird”, but you can also hear and feel the cracking coming from inside the mother at the same time and you find some understanding within her. There is anger and misunderstanding, but there is also much love to be felt between these two characters, especially when they do their “favorite Sunday activity”, a glorious sequence that enriches the backstory and rounds out the relationship the way few montages manage to accomplish.
(Laurie Metcalf is amazing in this movie)
To feel and understand anger and empathy, joy and pain, is a special cinematic experience that should be cherished. The film finds its way to your own humanity and makes you feel it.
The Case Against: When the film is not firing on all cylinders it settles for a reliance on nostalgia and familiar tropes of the coming-of-age genre. The film is set in 2002, presumably an autobiographical time-frame for writer/director Gerwig who would have been the same age as “Lady Bird” in 2002 (18) and would have been facing many of the same life choices, i.e. college, relationships, love, etc.
There isn’t anything intrinsically wrong with choosing this time-frame, but the film falls back on pointing out the en vogue elements of that era (people’s love/hate relationship with Dave Matthews Band, teenagers beginning their addiction to cell phones, post-9/11 stresses) without actually requiring them to tell the story. My thought is that it was tough to get into the mind of “Lady Bird” being an 18-year-old without Gerwig, herself, going back to the time when she was 18 and telling the story from that era.
I also have a theory why this movie is being so well-reviewed and why it resonates with so many reviewers: most of the prominent critics were right around the same age as “Lady Bird” in 2002. It’s 15 + years later and the people that were 18 then are all in their mid-to-late 30’s now and are very receptive to the flood of nostalgia in the film. This is, obviously, no fault of the movie, but I think it needs to be mentioned that it is easy to get swept up in nostalgia when you are seeing yourself and your clothes and hearing your music on screen for a change.
Now, being nostalgic isn’t a knock against the movie, but the effect of getting nostalgic definitely plays a part in critical analysis, and this is why I bring it up. When you boil the film down to its bare parts you have a quirky teenage girl who wants to be accepted in her own space in the world by her family, friends, and peers. And along the way she hits all the familiar narrative moments on the road womanhood: has a bad first relationship, desperately makes friends with the cool kids, ditches her best friend with the heart o’ gold who wouldn’t be accepted by the cool kids, loses her virginity to the wrong guy, disagrees about life with her mother, and eventually reconciles with the best friend and strains the mother-daughter bond but grows up and learns how strong that bond really is.
Somewhere there is a “coming-of-age” genre card with a bunch of boxes to be checked, and this films checks them all. Again, this does not make the movie bad, but it detracts from the depth of the story and what it has to say about people and relationships. There are so many great moments in this film and they get soiled by scenes like when “Lady Bird” confronts her friend after she quits the school play, or basically every scene with “Lady Bird” and her cool kid friends and her douche-bag, illuminati boyfriend.
I would say, hey, maybe that was Gerwig’s path through her teenage years and it’s a true representation of her life during that time, but I’m going to build this fort and stand firm on it. There is about 25% of the movie that uses stale cliches to keep the story moving and it didn’t enrich the film for me. The problem isn’t that these short-cuts were chosen, it’s that they had to be chosen because, aside from “Lady Bird” and her mother, the depth of character of the supporting cast is weak.
“Lady Bird’s” best friend, “Julie”, is written in a way that, in order for us to see “Lady Bird” make certain decisions, she had to be that way. She’s the happy-go-lucky character who supports her friend and is happy having only one friend. If she was written as someone with more depth and motivation then “Lady Bird” would not have had to make the choices she made, i.e abandon “Julie” to get noticed by the cool kids. And the same goes for the boyfriend, “Kyle”, who plays such an archetype that it’s kind of hilarious anyone would take him seriously. If he was written less vapid and bourgeois perhaps there could have been enrichment to the story and to “Lady Bird” through that relationship, but as it stands everyone, aside from “Lady Bird” and her mother, is very one-dimensional.
Conclusion: This is a really good movie that falls short of its critical status. Despite many of the flaws I pointed out, it is an enjoyable movie that will extract an emotional response no matter your age. There are simply things in this world that are important and shared experiences that resonate and this film touches on many of those things with a deft touch.