Bring up actress Greta Gerwig, and people likely are to say, “Who?” Face it, most mainstream moviegoers have not heard of her because she tends to eschew big-budget movies in favor of the arthouse genre. In fact she is quite accomplished as an actress and has brought forth some memorable and quirky, if little seen, screen performances.
Now we’re seeing she also is an effective writer-director as well.
“Lady Bird,” written and directed by Gerwig, has stirred positive critical buzz at a time when talk is heating up anyway for the Academy Awards push.
Gerwig went back to her roots with “Lady Bird,” which chronicles several months in the life of Christine McPherson, a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, where Gerwig was born. Yes, it’s a coming-of-age, teen angst story, but under Gerwig’s guidance it is perceptive, confrontational and moving, as well as funny in parts and very human.
Saoirse Ronan, already a two-time Academy Award nominee (“Atonement” in 2007 and “Brooklyn” in 2015) at age 23, may be a third-time nominee for her role as Christine, a teen who insists on being called Lady Bird. This young woman struggles with all the issues that hit pre-adults at that stage of their lives. There is school, fraught with the challenges of classes, studying and tests, a social life that is forever evolving, a home life that is precariously balanced between parental expectations, sibling rivalries and the usual tensions that stalk every family, usually centering around finances and how much leeway/responsibility a teen is expected or desires to take on. Oh, and add in the emotional and puzzling aspects of sex.
Gerwig nails the tone of the movie with the opening scene. Lady Bird is riding in a car driven by her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and they both are teary-eyed while listening to an audio book reading of a John Steinbeck novel. But within a couple of minutes they are sniping at each other. The major source of their antagonism is Lady Bird’s plans after graduating from high school. Lady Bird is a restless spirit who is eager to get out of Sacramento, which she calls the “Midwest of California.” She wants to move east to New York or somewhere to get an East Coast art-heavy education. Marion, concerned almost to the point of obsessive about the family’s tenuous financial situation, is positive colleges out that way are way beyond their means. Even though Lady Bird brings up the possibility of financial aid, Marion is not swayed.
Metcalf may be in line for her first Academy Award nomination as Marion. It is a role that is reminiscent of the late Mary Tyler Moore’s typecast-obliterating turn as the self-absorbed and emotionally cautious Beth in “Ordinary People.” Marion’s relationship with her daughter is not quite so cold and awkward as that of Beth and her son Conrad (Timothy Hutton). In fact, Marion is very much engaged in Lady Bird, at least as much as she can be while working in a psychiatric ward and trying to keep the family as secure as possible. Herself a product of an abusive home, Marion can get vicious when provoked. Yet despite the flareups, Marion and Lady Bird do things like going shopping for clothes together. Per usual the teen believes her mother is not loving enough. When Marion insists she loves Lady Bird, the girl counters with “But do you like me?”
Also spot on is Lady Bird’s relationship with her best female friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), the nerdy, socially clumsy girl who harbors a crush on her married-with-pregnant-wife math teacher. These two confide in one another and lean solidly on each other for support. For a while, Lady Bird and Julie drift apart as Lady Birds moves to another social circle and starts hanging out with Jenna (Odeya Rush). It is a mismatch that has Lady Bird trying to be what she is not. She soon realizes the sturdy foundation of a BFF more compatible with who she is.
Yep. The boyfriends. Lady Bird and Julie join the school’s drama department and in the course of rehearsing for the group’s upcoming stage production, Lady Bug becomes the boyfriend of the lead actor, Danny (Lucas Hedges). He is a gentleman, which seems too good to be true, as the girl soon learns. Then she hooks up with Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) a musician and something of a social outcast (at parties he is usually off by himself, reading a book). The romance she craves seems beyond his street-tough sensibilities.
A sweet aspect of this story is Lady Bird’s relationship with her father Larry (Tracy Letts). Although his role as financial provider for the family has diminished, he really is the glue that keeps the family from splintering. He is willing to defy Marion’s wishes and side with his daughter regarding college aspirations, solidly assured it will not affect her marriage to his wife.
Where does all this lead? Well, as with stories of this nature, it ends at a certain point where Lady Bird is where she thinks she should be and where she decides it’s time to resolve another issue that needs smoothing over, but only time will tell if this will transpire. And that’s where Gerwig leaves Lady Bird. Like an effective movie that requires emotional investment, it has us caring about this character and hoping that she can endure the inevitable future bumps in the road.