Lady Bird a Standard Coming of Age Movie


LADY BIRD  (2017)
Directed by Greta Gerwig
A24, 94 minutes, R (language, sexuality)

Groucho Marx once quipped, "I don't care to belong to any club that will have me as a member." He wasn't speaking of his adolescent years, but he could have been. Do you know a teenager who hasn't gone through an identity crisis? If you want to make a Sturm und Drang film, focusing on teens is the easiest way to do so. Saying something new is much harder. This is the challenge facing novice director Greta Gerwig in Lady Bird. Not surprisingly, she delivers a mixed result.   

Gerwig opens with an epigram from Joan Didion: "Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento." It's an amusing line, though it doesn't quite hide the fact that Lady Bird is a standard coming-of-age film. You know the type—the classic Freudian moment in adolescents' lives in which they must symbolically slay the dominant parent to become truly independent. Gerwig's twist is that it's mom, not dad, who must fall. This makes Gerwig's film more than a genre knock-off but just a tick above the norm, not a quantum leap.

The film is set just after 9/11. Right away we have a missed opportunity. The film centers on the turmoil and disconnectedness of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who adopts the affected handle "Lady Bird" as an act of minor rebellion. Why the film is set in 2002-03 is a mystery, given that Gerwig never makes logical parallels between Lady Bird's personal upheaval and that of the nation itself. New York appears in the film, but as the destination to which Lady Bird wishes to escape, not as any deeper analogy. Indeed, it's tempting to subtitle the movie Stifled in Sacramento. Lady Bird is the poster child for decent but disaffected teens. Her hair is streaked with red highlights and she wears on her sleeve her boredom with school, Catholicism, convention, and Sacramento. She's curious about sex and mildly intrigued by the drama club, but mostly she feels hemmed in—especially by her domineering mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

Add social class to the list of things that flatten Lady Bird's affect. The McPhersons are lower middle class and even that status is insecure, as father Larry (Tracy Letts) has been laid off and Marion must work double shifts at the hospital to keep food on the table for a household that also includes an adopted Latino son, Miguel (Jordan Rodriques) and his live-in girlfriend. It's the sort of home in which Lady Bird's wardrobe comes from thrift stores and is reworked by mom. Lady Bird can't help but fantasize about upper middle class homes or compare her friendship with the chubby math whiz Julie (Beanie Feldstein) with the cooler haute bourgeoisie social groups. This too causes grief. What does she want to be, a rebel or a Boho? The only constant is that she wants to be somewhere else, as her overstretched mother is hypercritical of everything Lady Bird says, does, or wants.
The film is at its weakest when Gerwig paints by the numbers. If you know the coming-of-age genre, you know what will ensue: inappropriate boyfriends and peers, self-discovery in acting, good cop/bad cop parenting, embarrassing situations, escape, revelation, dawning maturity, and call it a wrap. There's nothing new here, and the film would be a total wash were it not for extremely fine acting. At 23, this is probably Ronan's swan song for a role in which she plays 17 going on 18. That said, Ronan is everything we hoped she would be when she surfaced as a nine-year-old child actress. She strikes all the right notes as a confused young person who is smugly self-aware one moment and a clueless the next. Watch her as she rockets between tough as nails and vulnerable, or self-absorbed and wounded. Above all, Ronan inhabits her roles in ways that make us see the character, not her playing a character. The much under-rated Laurie Metcalf is also superb as a mother who loves her daughter deeply but can't get out of the way of her own snark. Deep inside she knows she's not doing her best for her daughter, but she literally lacks the energy to change. Nor can she afford to lower her guard. Letts is also very good as a depressed but super-mensch dad.  

It's too early to evaluate Gretta Gerwig's competence as a director. For her first film, she chose an unchallenging genre and didn't challenge herself within it. Inexperience leaks through several seams. In addition to the dropped 9/11 possibilities, she doesn't give us nearly enough clues about secondary characters, including those within the McPherson household who presumably contribute to Lady Bird's discontent. In fact, most of the incidental characters are more generalized types than distinct personalities. To date, Gerwig's most distinguishing directorial trait is that she has an eye for choosing talented leads.

On balance, Lady Bird is a decent, diverting film but not a memorable one. At its best it induces flashbacks to times most of us would never wish to relive. If it makes us a bit more tolerant of those stuck in the middle of the muddle, that's a service of sorts. The next time you encounter an annoying pack of teens, remember Groucho's words, smile, and mentally wish them godspeed for delivery from the club.

Rob Weir  

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