LADY BIRD – Review
Just a few weeks since SUBURBICON arrived at the multiplex (and just as it heads to the “second-run” theatres), another film directed by an actor opens. That’s about all that the two flicks have in common. The thespian behind the camera this time is the talented Greta Gerwig. At the start of the new century she was dubbed by many as the new “indie queen” with her performances in several quirky low-budget films (most shot in the NYC area). In the last decade or so she’s had small roles in studio films (JACKIE), but Ms. Gerwig’s heart seems to be with “underdog” cinema. On many of these projects she’s been stretching her creative muscles, first by writing many (two of her most acclaimed films were co-written with Noah Baumbach) and for one she co-directed with Joe Swanberg (NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS). This new release is her first (the first of many, it’s hoped) solo effort, directing and writing the coming of age comedy/drama LADY BIRD.
LADY BIRD is not a bio of LBJ’s wife, but it’s the name that 17 year-old Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has given herself (she signs her school papers with the moniker and insists that everyone address her by this name). We meet her on a road trip during her last high school Summer vacation. She and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are touring prospective colleges. Mom wants LB to sign up with a nearby community college (nothing more than an hour’s drive) while LB has dreams of an artsy’ East Coast college. But she’s got to finish high school first (she’s class of 2003), back at the Catholic girls’ school in Sacramento, California. Aside from rebelling against the nuns, particularly Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), and hanging with BFF Julia (Beanie Feldstein), LB clashes with older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and conspires with her pop, Larry (Tracy Letts) to apply for those far-away schools (Mom mustn’t know). When she finds out that the Fall musical will be a co-production with a nearby all-boys school, LB and Julia decide to “try out”. At the auditions, overseen by faculty director Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson), LB is smitten with Danny (Lucas Hedges). Despite their class differences, Danny’s family is “well off” while LB insists she lives on “the wrong side of the tracks” (squarely middle class), the two begin an intense romance. As the year progresses, LB tries to climb the social ladder by befriending “queen B” Jenna (Odeya Rush), leaving Julia bewildered. Turns out that Jenna’s boyfriend is in a band, one that includes the oh-so-cool and hip Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). Will he, rather than Danny, be the “one”? And where will she go after high school graduation?
Hard to believe it’s been two years since her breakout starring role in BROOKLYN. Now Ronan can add another impressive lead role to her considerable resume. As a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood, her Lady Bird is at times endearing, annoying, effervescent, and dreary. Capable of both sweetness and casual cruelty. Ronan effortlessly captures all the conflicting emotions and behavior of a young woman aching to break free, but often clinging desperately to her familiar surroundings. What a character and what an engaging performance. The same can be said for her steadfast supporter and sparring partner Metcalf as her harried mother. Marion’s the “tough” or “bad” parent who must bring LB’s flights of fancy down to Earth. She’s the one that worries about the bills when she’s not rushing off to her nursing job at the hospital (we must imagine the pressures there). Her sad eyes tells us that she has high hopes for the kids, but is filled with dread as the nest slowly becomes empty. Her silent drive around the airport speaks volumes without a bit of dialogue. As mother and daughter, they are one terrific team.
Plus these two are given ample support by an equally terrific troupe of veterans and screen newcomers. Celebrated playwright Letts turns in some great character work as the easy-going, “sad sack”(a touch of Willy Loman) papa with boundless faith in his little girl (along with tons of patience). Hedges follows up his astounding screen debut in last year’s MANCHESTER BY THE SEA with the sweet, open-hearted Danny (well, open to a point, as he hides a big part of himself from LB). Feldstein is heart-breaking as best pal Julie, whether she’s pining for her dreamy math teacher, or distraught over LB’s silent treatment. Chalament is superb as the dark, brooding hipster who is blithely unaware of his effect on LB. Great to see Smith commanding the screen as the nun who sees some of her youthful spirit in her charges. Henderson plays the theatre-loving Leviatch as a ball of barely contained emotion. And big kudos to Bob Stephenson who earns huge laughs as the replacement priest brought in to direct the Spring play in one of the funniest scenes in any film this year.
Of course this exceptional cast might flounder without the assured directing and near-perfect script from Ms. Gerwig. Though set in the not too distance past, its themes will resonate with anyone who recalls those heady, anxious days just before entering the “real world”. The heightened drama, when any slight or remark could be a major event (the whole “call me Lady Bird” quickly establishes the title character as oh so theatrical, along with that orange/magenta hair) is faithfully revisited. Even more truthful is the complex, perplexing mother/daughter dynamic with Marion and LB locked almost constantly in a war of wills, with the tension nearly smothering the love. Oh, and the whole backstage musical subplot is endearingly awkward. This work firmly establishes Gerwig as a great new film making voice. She makes LADY BIRD truly soar.
5 Out of 5