Lady Bird is a magnificent, extraordinary work of complex emotion and authentic sincerity. Shame that its Home Video release doesn’t do it justice.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Disclaimer: This review was made possible thanks to a screener provided by the film’s UK distributor, Focus Features.
You do not know me, nor, I imagine, do you care. You don’t want my life story, you don’t want lengthy detours about my upbringing, my family, my relationships with my mother and my father, our constantly rocky economic status, my time at Secondary School… none of that. You just want to know what I think of Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, and to be told whether it is any good. Well, see, that’s kind of really tricky for me, borderline-impossible even, because I had a visceral reaction to Lady Bird. Every single time that I have seen the movie up to now, 3 in all with more on the inevitable horizon, it has succeeded at turning me into a helpless sobbing wreck whose emotions are played like a rigidly conducted symphony orchestra. Whilst that is partly because of many factors we shall touch upon in the main body of this review, it is primarily because of my own personal life experiences and how Lady Bird inadvertently plays off of them.
It is extremely weird to see oneself and one’s own life being depicted up on screen, is the extremely simplified and shortened version, basically. But my properly explaining to you why that is the case – and, therefore, further illuminating the specific extremely personal reactions I had to Lady Bird – would balloon this review way past any reasonable length and, more pertinently, likely bore you all to tears. So, even though I am not from Sacramento, even though I was not a teenager at the turn of the century, and even though I am not a woman, I just need you to take my word for it when I tell you that Gerwig’s coming-of-age Dramedy personally affected me to my very core. And that when I keep referring to its authenticity, which is a vital component of this review, I have personal experience to back up my assertions. Maybe some other day somewhere else, I’ll go into further detail on that, but today we shall stick to the more impersonal reasons as to why Lady Bird is so powerful and so very, very good.
Lady Bird, then, is a turn-of-the-century coming-of-age dramedy following the titular character, birth name Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan). She’s in her final year of Catholic High School and preparing for college, wanting to go to one in New York in spite of her mediocre grades and family’s struggling financial status; the film following a year in her life and her relationships with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), prospective boyfriends Danny (Lucas Hedges) and Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), but mainly her family, including father Larry (Tracy Letts) and adopted older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), and especially her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). The ensuing narrative mechanics you have likely seen in dozens of coming-of-age dramedies before – friendships are broken and then renewed, cool popular kids are revealed to be vapid douchebags, our protagonist begins to get over themselves – but the devil, as they say, is in the details.
Gerwig, working from her own semi-autobiographical script, displays a masterful sense for detail in every facet of her filmmaking and writing. Much like Lady Bird’s college essay, she photographs Sacramento with such affection and care, zeroing in on the major class divides that exist in the suburban parts of the city and communicating just how stifling Lady Bird can find living in a quiet unexciting city that the older Gerwig understands the value and beauty in. She also manages to sketch the specific sense of living in early 2000’s suburban North America without falling back on clichés and clunky signifiers – no super-obvious needle-drops, wider political and societal shifts occurring on the absolute edges of the characters’ orbits, refusing to make easy jokes about passing fads or call undue attention to them. Where other directors would bash the viewer over the head with such things, *coughcoughRichardLinklatercough*, Gerwig instead features a brief shot of some girls at Homecoming wearing “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” shirts before moving on, and it instantly carries more natural sense of place than any self-consciously showy sequence set at a Harry Potter book release could.
And, unsurprisingly given her prior writing credits of Frances Ha, that eye for detail extends most of all towards the people in Lady Bird. Yes, I specify “people” because that is how deeply sketched and multi-faceted they are, the empathy that Gerwig displays for them apparently having no upper limits. Little character beats instantly complicate seemingly simple characters into the complex and often emotionally difficult way that human beings behave, most obviously given prominent showcase in the frequently contentious relationship between Lady Bird and Marion. Their often venomous and escalating arguments; born out of a shared, deep love that both are forever struggling, or perhaps straight-up incapable, to communicate to one another. Marion’s draining attempts to provide a life that Lady Bird may deem “good enough,” and avoid passing down the abuse her own mother inflicted upon her, clashing with her stubborn pride and belief that truth is paramount above all else – the contrast in the sequences where she forces a needless night-time argument with Lady Bird over a messy room, later followed by her working until late in the evening after a long shift at work to fix up a dress for Lady Bird’s Thanksgiving and which she receives no credit for (something she seemingly understands and accepts) is gutting in its authenticity.
That kind of complexity actually manifests in all the people who pass by Gerwig’s Sacramento. In an early scene, as part of a Drama Club exercise, Father Leviatch mentions that old dramatic adage “it’s not about being right, it’s about being true” and that’s something Gerwig clearly took to heart. Even the more archetypal characters who aren’t supposed to share that kind of complexity are given such specific shading and detail that they still manage to convince instead of slipping into caricature. Kyle, especially, with his perfect hipster hair, always clutching a philosophy book he clearly doesn’t properly understand, earnestly using lingo like “hella tight,” and hypocritically raging against cellphones and his desire to live “off the grid” kills me every time because he is exactly the kind of boy I too would have crushed on had I recognised my sexuality at Lady Bird’s age. With characters so well drawn, it’s no wonder that literally everybody is phenomenal in this, most especially Ronan, Metcalf, and Chalemet.
I could go on for ages about this film – I haven’t even touched on the masterful editing by Nick Houy, which always knows the precise moment to cut away from a scene or exactly how long a beat needs to be held for maximum effect or how to make this largely vignette-based film move with more purpose and pace than most thrillers – but the same cannot be said for the Blu-Ray. As has disappointingly become the norm, Universal have pushed out a bare-bones release that’s positioned as only being of interest for stubborn traditionalists (such as myself) who prefer to own a physical copy of their movies. In terms of bonus features, you get a Director’s Commentary by Gerwig and cinematographer Sam Levy (which I have not had time to hear but is a feature I always welcome), and a single 15 minute Making Of featurette that’s extremely surface-level and offers no insights you couldn’t get from watching the film itself. As someone who used to live for detailed Making Ofs and stacked bonus features, it disappoints me to see studios pushing them further to the wayside as Home Media moves towards an all-digital future, putting in the bare minimum of effort, with what results we do get largely being copy-pasted from YouTube press kits. At least start bundling DVD copies in again, like they still do in the US, if you’re going to keep charging significantly more for this “privilege!”
Still, a half-assed Home Media release does not detract in the slightest from the quality of Lady Bird itself, and that quality is immaculate. Gerwig’s true spotlight-commanding moment is every bit the instant classic. A powerful, phenomenally acted, witty, heartbreaking, emotionally complex but always true and hyper-specific tale capable of wrenching laughs and tears from all but the stoniest of hearts. One of 2017’s absolute brightest standouts in a year that was not lacking for them. And, in its detail, the dynamic of the parental relationships shared by Lady Bird, the alienation of being a stranger in your own hometown, the crushing reality of only barely getting by, and the total mess of teenage years, I saw myself and my life represented on-screen. That may not mean anything to you, but it means everything to me and I cannot discount that fact even if I wanted to.
Call your mother. Give her a hug.
Lady Bird is FINALLY available to buy in the UK now on DVD and Blu-Ray.
Callum Petch is sad but he’s laughing.