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Non-Review Review: Lady Bird

Lady Bird is a sweet and charming little film, one anchored in two great central performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf.

Lady Bird is relaxed and casual, a story of teenage anxiety unfolding at its own pace without any tangible sense of stakes or scale. Lady Bird is a refreshingly quiet and sincere movie, one that captures a lot of the listlessness associated with youth, the obliviousness to the reality of the outside world, the struggle to define a unique identity. For all the film is anchored in its Californian surroundings, Lady Bird is a universal coming of age story.

Blessing in disguise.

Like its protagonist, Lady Bird is smart and wry, if a little directionless and unsure of itself. However, the movie works in large part because of the decision to build its emotional core around the relationship between the eponymous character and her mother. Ronan is phenomenal here, but Metcalf is just as able to match her co-star. Both actors deliver raw and genuine performances that perfectly capture the push-and-pull of any real-life familial dynamic.

Lady Bird is perhaps a little too eccentric and a little too whimsical in places, drawing its supporting cast in broad strokes and leaning a little too heavily into stereotypes of adolescence, but the film has a warm and beating heart that sustains it for its ninety-three-minute runtime.

Bye, bye, birdie.

The first film written and directed by Great Gerwig, Lady Bird offers a very relaxed and casual glimpse at adolescence in Sacramento, California. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson dreams of escaping the region, of moving from the sunny west coast to an east coast liberal arts college so that she might better experience life. The opening scene features the teenager complaining to her mother about the fact that she has not lived “through” anything, a rather wry and ironic commentary for a movie set against the backdrop of 2002.

Lady Bird is a strange film about millennial angst, a weird nostalgic reflection on the years of the twenty-first century. It seems like the nineties nostalgia embodied by films like Jurassic World and Independence Day: Resurgence might have given way to nostalgia for an even more recent era. Lady Bird proudly wears its temporal markers on its sleeve, whether in characters debating the relative merits of cellular telephones or news footage of the invasion of Iraq or even the sampling of the Dave Matthews Band on the soundtrack.

Remember magazines, kids?

Lady Bird understands the insecurity and uncertainty of its lead character. For all that Christine complains about the fact that her life has no meaning and no direction, that she was born in  an era without any purpose or context, the film draws attention to the irony of her assertions. Christine repeatedly references the “War on Terror” or the cultural context of 9/11. A “Never Forget” corkboard hangs in a classroom, while her best friend worries about “terrorism” in New York.

Lady Bird understands that its character is living through a momentous cultural moment, juxtaposing that sense of scale and cultural anxiety with her own listlessness. This wry contrast between the importance of the moment around Christine and her own feelings of anxiety underscores the charm of Lady Bird. This is a film aware of its central character’s nearsightedness and her character flaws, of the bad decisions that she makes and her refusal to take an objective look at her life and her situation.

Is nothing Sacramento?

Repeatedly over the course of Lady Bird, the characters draw attention to Christine’s self-deception and self-delusion. She insists on trying out for math olympiad. “But you’re not very good at maths,” explains Sister Sarah. Christine responds, “That we know of.” The adult characters around Christine are living their lives and facing their struggles, with Christine so self-absorbed that she remains largely oblivious to what is happening in the world around her.

One of the shrewdest aspects of Greta Gerwig’s script is the decision to offer smaller glimpses at the lives of the people around Christine, with a minimal amount of context or explanation. Her drama teacher, Father Leviatch, disappears about half-way through the film, with only a short scene hinting at what has happened. As she drifts apart from her best friend, Julie, the film suggests that Christine has missed several key events in the life of her best friend. Lady Bird suggests that life exists in these lacunas and these ellipses, in the moments that Christine looks through or past.

Oh, boys.

Late in the film, Sister Sarah ruminates on the love that Christine clearly feels for Sacramento, for all that she has spent the movie complaining about the region. Sister Sarah argues that her work shows the attention that Christine has paid to her surroundings and to the larger world. “And in the end, aren’t they the same thing?” Sister Sarah argues. “Love, and affection?” In the world of Lady Bird, becoming an adult means paying attention to the world beyond oneself. With that attention, comes a form of love.

Lady Bird understands that love is not uncritical, that love is not unquestioning. Similarly, Lady Bird‘s exploration of faith and religion is intriguing and clever, providing an interesting contrast to many depictions of the Catholic Church in contemporary pop culture. There is something endearingly universal in Lady Bird‘s depiction of attending a religious high school, something that will resonate beyond the film’s setting and time. However, while Lady Bird never glamourises the experience, it harbours a deep nostalgia for these innocent years.

The mother of all issues.

That said, some of the plotting and characterisation of the supporting cast in Lady Bird feels a little broad and generic. In particular, Christine’s teenage love interests are not fully-formed characters so much as clichés and punchlines. Danny O’Neill and Kyle Scheible never feel like actual people, instead serving as crudely-drawn plot devices that exist largely to underscore Christine’s difficulty looking beyond herself during her teenage years.

Still, Lady Bird works in large part because of the central performances. Saoirse Ronan is fantastic as the eponymous character, playing a witty and intelligent character who does not understand the world as much as she might think that she does. She works very will with Laurie Metcalf, who plays Christine’s mother. The two actors bounce effortlessly off each other, each bringing out the best in the other. The spine of Lady Bird seems to be composed primarily of arguments between these two characters, but the actors ensure that each of these scenes has a unique texture and feel.

Bricking it.

Lady Bird is an endearing coming of age story, with a wry wit and elevated by two strong performances.

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