Manhattan appears only briefly at the end of Lady Bird, the actor-writer Gerwig’s deft directorial debut, which is currently playing in the New York Film Festival. To Gerwig’s credit, she doesn’t use conventional establishing shots of Manhattan landmarks to sell NYC as a mecca.
A character emerges from a subway station, meets someone at a party, gets intimate with that person. In other words, New York does its job as it’s always done: fleetingly, it supplies a backdrop for discovery, aspiration, and a romance, or at least a hook-up.
Tenderness and wit
Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento is a less glamorous but no less reliable star of Lady Bird. The heroine, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), initially a high-school senior who turns 18 during the course of the movie, eventually gleans that she doesn’t despise the Californian state capital as much as she thought she did.
It is, for her, a bedrock of love and relative stability, the ground beneath her feet she knows will always be there if she needs it. The part of it we see, though, is also a battleground.
A film of tenderness and wit, Lady Bird astutely captures the nature of the internecine warfare that habitually exists between girls in late adolescence and their mothers.
This is a conflict limned with intensely painful closeness. Like a war correspondent who finds herself or himself powerless to affect a war’s outcome, a husband with a 16- or 17-year-old daughter at odds can only stand on the sidelines and offer words of reason that the womenfolk are usually too incensed to absorb. And maybe that’s OK: two rites of passage are enough for one family to experience at any one time.
Gerwig’s coup was making the movie as much about the journey of Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf), Lady Bird’s mom, as about Lady Bird’s. The self-chosen nickname, which Christine insists on using, is an appealing affectation, intended to shore up her sense of her own identity. (Curiously, the English nursery rhyme “Ladybird Ladybird” warns a neglectful or fretful mother to hurry home for her kids’ sakes.)
Marion is a double-shift-working psych ward nurse, who lives with her husband Larry (Tracy Letts, acting older than he is), sullen adopted son Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), and Lady Bird in a lower-middle class neighborhood. Like most moms, she struggles to accept that Lady Bird is in the process of leaving, as she must if she is to become a fully-fledged adult.
Fearful of Lady Bird getting into trouble with boys and substances, she has become controlling and disapproving—of Lady Bird’s habit of leaving clothes lying around, for example. “You think only of yourself,” she tells her. Any other 17-year-olds out there heard that?
There’s a flip side to Marion’s anger: the comfort only a mother can give. When Lady Bird sobs in her mom’s car after losing her virginity to an uncaring partner, Marion’s shoulder is there for her to cry on. Mom surely intuits what has happened but doesn’t refer to it.
Lady Bird yearns to go to an East Coast college; Marion can’t contemplate her attending a school outside California. Gerwig, who left Sacramento to attend Barnard in Manhattan, knows enough not to judge Marion’s judginess and querulousness because she knows how hard-wired it is and how much pain she’s in. Doing her best screen work since Roseanne, Metcalf is extraordinary playing a woman whose heart is breaking; the alternative would be for Lady Bird to be crushed.
Larry plays a more enabling role in his daughter’s life—he fills in her college scholarship forms and maintains an amiable relationship with her—because he doesn’t identify with Marion’s cause (is that because a child is much less of its father’s flesh than its mother’s?). Dad is, perforce, “the good cop,” a situation rued by strong-minded moms everywhere.
Lady Bird’s doing battle with her two successive boyfriends—gentle, innocent theater geek Danny (Manchester-by-the-Sea‘s Lucas Hedges) and bookish bad-boy dreamboat Kyle (Timothée Chalamet)—is crucial, but it’s also chaff in contrast to her tussles with Mom.
Boys will come and go; best friends are less exchangeable. After Lady Bird ditches her unfashionable BFF Julie (Beanie Feldstein) in favor of the cold-eyed beauty Jenna (Odeya Rush) who hangs in Kyle’s cynical crowd, she learns a moral lesson. In showing her where her loyalties lie, the prom becomes the pivotal event.
A Woody Allen fan, Gerwig found in Ronan an actor skilled at channeling a version of her younger self, as Allen has cast young actors like Jason Biggs and Jesse Eisenberg to channel young Woody. Ronan’s Lady Bird is exactly as 17-year-old Gerwig might have been. At times, you might think you’re watching a prequel to Hannah Take the Stairs, Frances Ha or other Gerwig acting vehicles.
Lady Bird’s lank hair is tinted red, she has acne, she compensates for being introverted by being outspoken, she is gawky, a duck who is not quite yet a swan—but that could happen at any moment. Since the film is set at the time the Iraq War started, it actually would have happened a long time ago, so Lady Bird, or Christine as she reverts to calling herself, must now be flying. Greta Gerwig certainly is.
Lady Bird is screening at the New York Film Festival on October 8 and 9.