Lady Bird is as eager to propel herself out of Sacramento as she is to fling herself out of her mother’s moving car when they suddenly argue. That moment captures perfectly their relationship, and the restlessness of a young person just on the cusp of independence. The only way forward – and out – is propulsive.
Lady Bird is Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a teenager in her last year at a private Catholic school. As she explains when quizzed by a kindly drama teacher (Stephen McKinley Henderson), Lady Bird is the name she has been given – by herself.
Lady Bird feels stifled. She would be aimless but for her ambition to flee to the East Coast, to a place like Connecticut or New Hampshire, where, as she tells her mother, writers live in the woods. This is no flight of fancy. The MacDowell Foundation, an artists’ colony in New Hampshire, does just that – providing cabins in the woods for artists and writers to work, away from the distractions of the world.
It is a great ambition, though we never see Lady Bird read books, or write. She has an artistic sensitivity and a hunger to escape, but has not yet found her passion or a focus.
The film follows her through her last year at home. Her caring parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts) are worn out by life and anxiety over the future, over work and over money. They are the struggling lower-middle class, with what seem like diminishing options. The mother works double-shifts as a psychiatric nurse, the father is an IT worker in search of a job.
It soon becomes apparent that it is not Sacramento, or her parents, Lady Bird wants to run from. She wants to run from the desolation of crushed dreams – her parents’ crushed dreams. They are struggling. It’s 2002, and they are part of a middle-class generation cast adrift from the prosperity of past generations. She does not want to become like her bitterly anxious mother, or her gently disillusioned father.
Class and money are an overt theme: Lady Bird and her mother share a little hobby – visiting homes for sale that are well out of the family’s financial reach. Lady Bird also dates boys from comfortably well-off homes (Lucas Hedges, and later Timothée Chalamet), and tries on for size the friendship of rich girls. She is soon disillusioned and returns to her old buddy (Beanie Feldstein). The film is less the tale of a sentimental education and more one of social class apprenticeship.
There are beautiful exchanges, great set-pieces, witty one-liners. Laurie Metcalf, as Lady Bird’s mother, lights up the screen with her fierce energy for survival, her bittersweet almost-but-not-quite capitulation at life. She no longer expects happiness for herself, but fiercely wants the best for her daughter.
When Lady Bird tells her mother “what if this is my best self?” it just takes one look from her mother to know not to say such nonsense. It’s a brief, but memorable scene, which is also a gentle nod towards Pretty in Pink – except, of course, that Molly Ringwald’s character was very clear about who she was, and far more mature than Lady Bird.
The ‘best self’ moment is not only a memorable scene. It also makes what follows rather puzzling: a mother who wants the best for her daughter, and is working double-shifts to keep the family afloat and her daughter in private school, and yet, does not want her daughter to go away to a good University.
Ostensibly, it is about money. How dire the consequences might be, if Lady Bird proceeds with her plan, even with financial aid, is not clear. Are the parents at risk of bankruptcy? The mother’s resentful, silent rage, when Lady Bird does get her university place in New York thanks to her father’s covert help, is immense; the cruelty of the mother blanking her daughter, as the child begs and cries to be acknowledged and forgiven, goes off the scale of a film which in other ways keeps its emotional range contained within a narrow bandwidth.
The harrowing scene of maternal coldness only partly makes sense. If indeed the consequences for the parents are terrible, what are we to think of the film’s end, and of Lady Bird? If the consequences are not terrible, then why the mother’s rage? Is there something else in the story which remains unsaid? And what are we to make of the father, a nice man, who twice sneaks behind his wife’s back, albeit in a good cause? Those are odd gaps. The film is partly autobiographical, and where there are puzzling elisions in the film, one wonders about the real lives behind it.
Lady Bird is a film made of set-pieces, more dialogue-driven than cinematic, and is fine for it. It is a charming film, which has received widespread critical acclaim well ahead of its UK release – much of it from male critics. The story is about a young woman who is fundamentally sweet, a headache to no-one except her mother – occasionally – and who does not frighten the horses with an overly strong character or a rich interior life. What defines her is that she is aspirational. She does have a great sense of repartie, and that is one of the pleasures of the film. The other, of course, is Laurie Metcalf: a superb performance by a woman raging, already, at the dying of the light – and of aspiration.
Director: Greta Gerwig
Cinematography: Sam Levy
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Lois Smith
Originally published on MyFilmClub, February 2018