With her performances in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, Mistress America and Frances Ha, and having also co-written the latter two films, Greta Gerwig had already established herself as a talent to be watched in the coming years. However, she steps up to an entirely new level with her directorial debut Lady Bird, a film that captures the coming-of-age sensibilities of her previous work, but places them within a quirky yet recognisable context that enables Gerwig to shine, bringing to life a wonderfully complex portrait of family, teen relationships and the transition from youth to adulthood.
The adolescent that we follow on this emotional journey is the titular ‘Lady Bird’ (Saoirse Ronan), born Christine McPherson. With this nickname, Christine hopes to rediscover herself as apart from her family, particularly her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who she sees as controlling and ‘infuriating’. Their relationship is tense to say the least, fuelled by Christine’s developing rebelliousness as a result of her high school episodes: first love, losing her virginity, fluctuating between friends considered ‘cool’ and those not so much. However, these latter events start to define her in relation to the former, as she finds herself facing that terrible moment we all face as young adults: Christine wants to move on from what she knows but refuses to give up what she grew up with.
It’s this delicate decision that defines Lady Bird, determining Gerwig’s film as a stand out within the crowded pack of coming-of-age dramedies. Where most have dug a little in their respective films, Gerwig excavates deeper, exploring the intricacies of adolescence and the tempestuous emotions that erupt during this phase. From an explosively spontaneous argument between Christine and Marion in the film’s first minutes, to a post-coital conversation that’ll have you reaching out to take Christine into your arms, Gerwig constructs an original narrative that covers the whole spectrum of teenage experience.
What seals the story as one worth watching are the lead performances. Saoirse Ronan has consistently demonstrated her ability to seamlessly tap into the mind-set of any character she’s given, and the role of Christine is no different. With an energetic optimism, a quirky sense of style and an unruly streak that gets her into hot bother, Christine is a wonderful creation and Ronan embodies her to the utmost.Laurie Metcalf nearly steals the show, however, as a mother whose love for Christine is buried deep inside, obscured by a passionate defiance against her child’s evolution from daughter to independent adult. The part of Marion demands an actress who can subtly hint at the hidden layers to her demeanour, and Metcalf proves to be the perfect fit.
Yet it’s the material that transforms Lady Bird into the Oscar contender it has become over awards season. Gerwig’s script is beautifully bold, her direction confidently handled. There are story points that go underdeveloped here and there: Lucas Hedges’ love interest undergoes a character trajectory that would prove fascinating in tandem with Christine’s, yet Gerwig abandons it following a key revelation. But the characterisation of Christine is so rich and her relationships so expertly explored, that it is impossible to deny Gerwig’s ambition and talent.
It’s this ambition that has gone unnoticed by many a reviewer and it is the ultimate praise that I can bestow upon Gerwig’s project. With the occasional, sensitively implemented nod to 9/11 and the Iraq War, Gerwig deliberately positions Christine within this most uncertain of periods, accentuating her struggle with her identity and her prospects. Furthermore, Gerwig doesn’t settle for catharsis as Christine faces this self-turmoil: Christine is let down by those closest to her on a number of occasions and vice versa. But Gerwig integrates this into the narrative as a perfectly natural and necessary part of life, revealing some hard home truths in the process. It’s in these touches that one can sense Gerwig reaching beyond the confines of her narrative, and her efforts have proven successful. A love letter to the city of Sacramento, an honest look at adolescence and a challenging assessment of familial relationships, Lady Bird is a triumph, launching Greta Gerwig into the upper echelon of up and coming filmmakers.