It’s 2002, Sacramento, and Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is up to trouble again.
She’s not a bad teen by any means. She tries very hard to be good. She just wants what… what she is supposed to have. This is her senior year of high school. Can’t she have a boyfriend, a job, a role in the school play, a little popularity, and a chance to get into the college of her dreams and escape California without her mother (Laurie MetCalf) giving her the silent treatment or commenting on every little thing?
Is that too much to ask?
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a terrifically acted, charming meditation on the leap between teenagehood and adulthood. It’s about who and what shapes you, and loving where you come from. It’s a love letter to suburbia and awkward moments and mistakes and families.
It hits all the beats of a coming of age story, but in a way that doesn’t feel like it’s trying to be “quirky” and “cute.” It feels honest, and I think a lot of people will see shadows of their lives in this film, to a bigger degree than a lot of films that try so hard to be realistic and cool and end up missing the point.
Lady Bird is not a story where bad things rain down upon the protagonist. It’s not an endless parade of drama and despair. There are serious moments, but I think the life Lady Bird leads is common and unextraordinary. In other words, it’s not a movie where you describe the plot, because Lady Bird isn’t really interested in that. It’s interested in making you laugh, cringe, nod in understanding, and reflect.
A lot has been written about Lady Bird- the splendor of Ronan’s performance, Gerwig’s confident directing, the commentary on wealth and Bush-era America. Those are all important aspects of the film, but here is what I primarily took away.
Lady Bird is an optimistic movie in the way another one of my favorite films of the year, The Unknown Girl, is. Both are films about characters figuring out how to interact with the people around them. Lady Bird navigates strained relationships with her mother, father, boyfriend, siblings, friends, teachers, and strangers. Throughout the film, she messes up and tries again, each time getting better and better at empathizing, understanding, and supporting those people. She learns about how complex the lives of others are. She matures by deciding the world is not just about her.
That’s what coming of age is, yet the irony is that most films like this are about individuals becoming more selfish. They decide they deserve more, that life isn’t fair, and that they have a special place in the world to do something only they can fill.
But Lady Bird is about realizing that maybe you don’t contribute all that much, and maybe we need to treat each other with a little more kindness as we realize that sobering fact.
Lady Bird isn’t strikingly unique in many aspects, yet people love it (it has set a record on Rotten Tomatoes by having no negative reviews and just today was named Best Picture by The New York Film Critics Circle). I think that’s because it is difficult to convey such a nuanced message. That is what makes it one of the best films of the year.