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Lady Bird film review: a dramedy that’s sweet, smart and prosaic

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It gives me a buzz when actors direct films and their on-screen personalities permeate the tone and energy of the work. You can see it in the glib idiosyncrasies of Woody Allen, the chaffing comedy of Danny DeVito, the swollen-headed hipsterism of Miranda July. You can see it also in the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, a hipstery coming-of-age dramedy that opens with a Joan Didion quote: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento”.

Didion is from Sacramento, as is Gerwig and her titular protagonist Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan). The character was born Christine but prefers her self-appointed moniker. Like many moments in Gerwig’s films, this is a small act of defiance performed loudly; she wants everybody to know she can pick her own name.

As an actor (particularly in films she co-wrote, including Frances Ha and Mistress America) Gerwig often comes across as a bohemian, free spirit type, whose right side of the brain overpowers her left. Rather than living for the moment, this gives an impression of a person who spends much time rationalising the past – as if self-characterisation as a big-hearted but erratic non-conformist might explain character flaws or prior indiscretions.

Lady Bird is a film about commanding respect when you don’t deserve any, and asking others to believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself.

Like her film, which has been nominated for five Academy Awards (best picture, best director, best screenplay, best leading actress and best supporting actress) Gerwig’s personality is self-deprecating, but mannerly; accessible, but cultured. Whenever it appears this sympathetic drama might be approaching a challenging or unpopular sentiment, the director politely backtracks to let pleasantness prevail.

Early in the piece, in the car with her overly sensitive mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), Lady Bird thinks aloud: “I wish I could live through something”. Moments later, unsatisfied with Marion’s unsympathetic response, she throws herself out of the vehicle. It takes a special kind of softie to direct a scene like that so undramatically, with virtually no impact on the rest of the story. Lady Bird is a film about commanding respect when you don’t deserve any, and asking others to believe in you when you don’t believe in yourself.

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Another way of saying, perhaps, that it is about being a teenager. The 17-year-old protagonist isn’t old or wise enough to question things right in front of her, i.e. whether her love interest might be gay or her father depressed. She is a senior at a Catholic high school who pursues her crushes boldly. Lady Bird is fond of telling new friends she’s “from the wrong side of the tracks,” because her family’s house is literally past train tracks. Also because the quip illuminates something deeper: a sense of shame that she does not belong to a more well-to-do household.

Saoirse Ronan plays Lady Bird with pluck and spunk, and an indignant streak that rings totally true.

Saoirse Ronan plays Lady Bird with pluck and spunk, and an indignant streak that rings totally true. She is like a Gerwig incarnate. The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother (a very good, higher key performance from Laurie Metcalf) is the most affecting, because it is most prepared to probe the characters for flaws. Both Ronan and Metcalf have been nominated for Academy Awards.

Soft old dad (Tracy Letts), a mopey but amiable man forced to start again professionally in the new millenium, doesn’t get the same treatment. His demons belong to a different story. This isn’t necessarily a negative,Gerwig’s fickle focus on supporting characters affording more preciseness to the dramas (i.e. between mother and daughter, and the gradual growth of the protagonist) that are core to the experience.

This uncluttered approach is reflected through cinematographer Sam Ley’s mature visual style, tinted with a slightly yellowed, early morning look. The director understands, like her sometime collaborator Noah Baumbach (director of Frances Ha and Mistress America), that when the frame moves, it is primarily the camera and not the actors performing. Gerwig has too much respect for her craft to do that. This well made but prosaic film is very much informed by her own sensibilities.

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One response to “Lady Bird film review: a dramedy that’s sweet, smart and prosaic

  1. Prosaic, yes. (lacking poetic beauty, commonplace, dull)
    3 & 1/2 is very generous, then.
    I’ve loved Greta Gerwig’s characters when written and directed by Noah Baumbach and Todd Solondz, so this was a devastating disappointment.
    US American teenager graduates high school and prepares to go to college. Looks like a cliche, and is. It never gets going.

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