An Even Grungier Juno - Lady Bird
Ten years ago, a little movie called Juno made stars or bigger stars out of everyone involved. Whip smart writing and an endearing young woman as lead in a drama ripped from the pages of Sex Ed was the recipe for success. Lady Bird, actress Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, follows a similar formula with Saoirse Ronan as the angsty, hair-on-fire teen whose life swings from not-quite crisis to not-quite crisis—things like college applications and high school dances. But through all the melodrama, the movie, which Gerwig also wrote, finds a way to tell a personal story that has something to say about generational identity and the idea of accepting who you are. And while it doesn’t quite reflect my own experiences, there’s no doubt the movie has a point.
Lady Bird tells the story of Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (played by Saoirse Ronan). She's a high school senior living in Northern California and facing the sort of episodic struggles that all teens do. She's dating boys, fighting with her mother (played by Laurie Metcalf) and looking for a way out. We follow her through the college application process and her awkward back-and-forth between conformity and rebellion. She has hair that looks like she cut and dyed it herself, but at times longs to hangout with the kids who drive Range Rovers. She is a walking contradiction, colliding with friends, family and the world around her in ways that are often fun and surprising, but also sobering and heartfelt.
It could just be that teens hate everything, but Lady Bird's hate takes shape as a unique brand of self-loathing. Not only does she have disdain for her Sacramento upbringing, but she also hates where in Sacramento she’s from—the "wrong side of the tracks" as she says. She hates her less than prestigious home life and she even hates her birth name, Christine, which she casts aside in favor of Lady Bird, a name she gave herself. Her holistic rejection of her identity serves as a marker for her personal growth throughout the film as we watch her eventually accept pieces of who she is and who she may one day become (SPOILER ALERT: Her Mother).
While the film is very well made and Gerwig does a beautiful job of molding this character, I couldn't help but feel like there was not quite enough judgment raining down on Lady Bird. On a basic level, she is a special kind of bratty and she hurts the people around her who are just doing the best they can. Nothing about her parents, for instance, is really offensive--they are middle class people trying to hold together a middle class life. That Lady Bird acts as if events and circumstances are targeted attacks on her makes it hard to root for her. When she says "other things can be sad; it's not all war" as a means of rebutting her brother's argument that her problems were first world to the nth degree, the movie seems to take a neutral stance on who is right. But when you step back and consider that she's a pretty average girl with no real problems, it starts to make her feel more and more hollow with each complaint.
That said, there’s a world in which this movie is made without Saoirse Ronan and it’s not one I want to live in. She single-handedly takes Lady Bird from being a character I had no use for to one with just enough complexity to keep me engaged. As an Irish actress trying to capture the frustration of a teen who hates everything about their life, Ronan is the movie's backbone. Certain of the actors around her (looking at you Timothee Chalamet) seem miscast, but she is sublime in the role.
While the film is far from perfect and perhaps even far from Juno, it's not empty. What's there seems like a story that is deeply personal to Gerwig and I look forward to seeing what story she might tell next. If it's one with slightly more perspective, it could be something truly special, but if the best thing she ever makes is Lady Bird, that is certainly something to be proud of.
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