Greta Gerwig’s ‘Lady Bird’ soars

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Scott Rudin Productions/Courtesy

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Grade: 5.0/5.0

Lady Bird is not her given name. Christine McPherson, a Sacramento native and aspiring defector, gave the name to herself. She doesn’t take things lying down.

Lady Bird has one foot tapping out her senior year at a Catholic high school. Much like the year of ceremonious lasts it is told around, the film flies by. Prescient of this imminent parting, “Lady Bird” balances the particular sadness that is leaving childhood behind, with Lady Bird’s enviable, frenetic sense of self.

“Lady Bird” is an accomplishment — no line, no look is wasted, if not made vital. It’s also the first film for which Greta Gerwig is solely credited as both writer and director.

The script is witty and painful, hopeful yet realistic. The characters are people you’ve met before, and were better for it.

The leading lady, in waiting, is played with a fluorescent ease by the endlessly capable actress Saoirse Ronan — fresh off of a Best Actress Academy Award nomination at last year’s Oscars. Though the character of Lady Bird screams for center stage, Ronan’s dignified portrayal of the anxious adolescent manages to leave ample room for important supporting characters. Characters that ultimately give the film its exceptional warmth and prudent wisdom.

Creating the sense of a tangible community, each supporting character flutters by, unbeknownst to Lady Bird, with their own personal complexity.

Played by an accomplished cast of actors, including Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts as Lady Bird’s parents, and Lois Smith and Stephen Henderson as her school’s Sister Sarah Joan and Father Leviatch, respectively. All are unfazed by Lady Bird’s serpentine path of self-declaration. By omitting overreactions, Gerwig avoids caricature, filling it with a realistic sense of understanding between the characters. What is left unsaid only enhances the scenes of fighting, discovery and humor.

Gerwig has said that the swift casting of the film allowed her to hold multiple rehearsals for the actors in her own apartment. Gerwig encouraged her actors to keep secrets amongst themselves, and apart from her. She hoped the cast would create a world of their own, leaving some things unsaid, even to the film’s creator.

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Scott Rudin Productions/Courtesy

The role Gerwig seems to understand best in “Lady Bird” is its setting, Gerwig’s own home town.

Sacramento, California, is not a city often seen on the big screen. The state’s capital carries many fabulous pasts, doted on by the writer Joan Didion, but it has since suffered from sprawl and, until now, a lack of artistic attachment. Gerwig corrects this without denouncing the sprawl, instead showing us the integral people who have come with it.

To the embarrassment of her mother, who works double shifts as a nurse in a psychiatric ward to make ends meet, Lady Bird offers up to her first love that she is from “the wrong side of the tracks,” a youthful declaration of intrigue she need not declare.

“It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah Joan says after reading Lady Bird’s college essay.

“I guess I pay attention,” Lady Bird responds, defending her transparency. Sister Joan retorts, “Don’t you think they are the same thing?”

The exchange mimics the arching, aching, tension of the film: a difficult relationship between Lady Bird and her mother Marion. In a circle of representation, Lady Bird has written her essay entirely about a place she expends nothing but criticism toward — a tactic and source of torment that her mother Marion aims toward Lady Bird.

In one such scene, Lady Bird has used two towels after a shower, launching her mother into intense questioning as to why she would need two when she knows that means more laundry for her mother. Lady Bird knows this is not a battle worth having and quickly relinquishes the superfluous towel.

In a brief scene outside of Lady Bird’s view, we see Marion in the dark, between shifts, hunched over a sewing machine, hemming a dress for her daughter.

Gerwig tackles the mother-daughter relationship — a relationship both universally complex, and fiercely unique to each pairing, with remarkable accuracy. This evokes the ultimate and most magical sensation possible of art: “Lady Bird” feels like it was made for you.

“This Eve of Parting” by John Hartford perfectly scores the last scene between mother and daughter. Hartford’s voice swoons: “Curse the thought of your existence… Loving every flaxon hair…”

With “Lady Bird,” Gerwig proves her grasp of boundless emotions, creating a film that continues to expand long after its parting.  

Contact Audrey McNamara at [email protected].

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