If you grew up poor in a constant state of embarrassment about your circumstances, you will be able to relate to Lady Bird. If you had a mother who would be constantly telling you that you will never achieve anything in life, you will be able to relate to Lady Bird. If you were ever a teenager, you will be able to relate to Lady Bird because the directorial debut from indie darling Greta Gerwig is one of the best examinations of adolescence we have seen for quite some time. With the obvious exception of the late, great John Hughes, few filmmakers have captured the agony of the teenage years as authentically as Gerwig has here; all the angst, insecurity and uncertainty of that period in our lives where we sit delicately poised between the naivety of childhood and the burden of responsibility and expectation that grows exponentially as we make the transition into adulthood. In this instance – as is no doubt the case in many families, the hopes and dreams of young people are at odds with the expectations of others (parents, teachers, friends) – the titular Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson finds herself at loggerheads with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) on just about everything.
Sure, Christine (Saoirse Ronan) is tempestuous and overly dramatic at times, but Marion is, for want of a better word, a bitch and it is hardly surprising that Christine wants to flee the family home in Sacramento, California to attend college on the east coast, “where culture is”. Attending the local catholic high school on a scholarship, Christine lives, quite literally, on the wrong side of the tracks in a modest home with Marion, her father Larry (Tracy Letts) her adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodriguez) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott). Money is tight, with Marion working long hours as a psychiatric nurse to make ends meet. Miguel and Shelly both work at the local supermarket and Lady Bird is determined to make a better life for herself, as far away from Sacramento as possible. Like most people her age, Christine hides her fears and uncertainties behind a façade of self-confidence and a determination to convince herself that she is capable of more than what her mother envisages for her.
At one point, in reaction to being told what a financial burden she has been, Christine asks Marion to provide a number – an amount that totals the cost of raising her – so that she can pay it back. In response, Marion spews ‘it doesn’t matter, because you will never have a job that pays well enough’, one of several instances in which Marion makes it quite clear that she holds little hope for Christine to make much of a mark on the world which, of course, is demoralising. Perhaps Marion is struggling to come to terms with the fact that Christine is ready to make her own way in the world and there are those who will argue that Marion is simply trying to shield her daughter from disappointment, no doubt borne from her own failings to escape the endless struggle of trying to make ends meet. However, as infuriating as Christine can be, there is no excuse for the way Marion treats her, leaving the quietly depressed, but utterly decent, Larry as the buffer between the two women.
From her skilful handling of issues such as depression, friendship, sex and sexuality and the ritualism of a catholic education, Gerwig has created a film that feels real. There is an authenticity in the characters and the world in which they live, no doubt due, in large part, to the autobiographical aspect of the story. Gerwig, whose on-screen credits include the likes of Maggie’s Plan, Mistress America and Frances Ha, grew up in Sacramento and whilst Christine is desperate to flee, the director and her cinematographer Sam Levy deliver a somewhat romanticised vision of the city (which has spawned walking tours of the Sacramento locations showcased in the film). A knockout turn from Ronan, whose perfect pitch and nuanced, graceful performance allows us and sympathise with her character, even at her most obnoxious. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name) feature as the boys to whom Christine finds herself drawn and Beanie Feldstein is great as the friend who is cast aside when the opportunity to hang with the cool kids presents itself. A wistful, nostalgic, and gloriously funny portrait of adolescence, Lady Bird is a wonderfully assured effort from Gerwig, who also wrote the screenplay, that is one of the most accomplished female coming-of-age tales since the Hughes era.