Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, is the first film I’ve ever taken myself to see. I suppose my pitch to the few people whom I did ask to go with me wasn’t very convincing: “You know, Frances Ha?” or “I don’t really like Greta Gerwig, but I want to go see this so I can hate on her.” Yeah, definitely not very convincing. Or particularly nice. I’m not going to deny that I have a bit of a predisposed dislike for Greta Gerwig. She’s always fallen into the same category for me as Lena Dunham—they’re both uncomfortably close to me in age and experiences, and watching their work tends to leave me with a cringe-worthy feeling of self-identification and embarrassment.
Yet at the same time, I can’t help but also feel completely alienated by their performances and films because at the end of the day, they’re two white women creating stories about white women. In some (rare) instances, I’m able to suspend that perception and just watch a film without constantly thinking about identity and the lack of diversity within its story, but for two women who have the spotlight and are telling stories that ought to generationally resonate with me, it’s difficult to cut them that kind of slack. But despite all my biases, out of all the Gerwig and Dunham works I’ve seen, Lady Bird is the first I really, truly liked.
To give you a brief synopsis, Lady Bird tells the story of Sacramento born and raised Christine McPherson, aka Lady Bird (she gave that name to herself, she explains), during her senior year of high school. Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan, is headstrong and isn’t very good at thinking beyond her own wants and needs, such as getting out of California, and spends the majority of the film at odds with her pragmatic and tough love-dealing mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).
As I watched Lady Bird, I couldn’t help but feel a little sad, and not because I went to the movies by myself. Watching the film alone gave me the room I needed to sit and reflect as I watched it, and what I realized as the film unfolded was that Lady Bird’s style of filmmaking and storytelling had the look and feel of what I’d want to make if I eventually land an opportunity to create within the narrative movie-making world. The shots, the style, and the story that played out were all things I hope I’ll get to do someday. I say this not because I want to focus on my own film aspirations, but because that’s what I appreciated and admired most about Lady Bird. It’s a simple, slice of life look into a person’s experiences and the lives of those she interacts with, and it’s shot and edited in a pragmatic, economical way that sucks you into Lady Bird’s world without being distracted by any extra frills. That’s not to say that I couldn’t start film-geeking out about the use of framing devices in specific shots and their meanings, like this one below…But I won’t.
As you’ve probably heard already, Lady Bird has claimed the record for holding a 100 percent critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes for the longest amount of time. That fact, along with reading a couple of snippets from interviews with Gerwig, who says that she drew inspiration from films like The 400 Blows and Cleo from 5 to 7, made me figure I had to see it. Being honest here, I wouldn’t give the film a perfect score, but I will say that I think this is a film that a lot of us needed in our lives and perhaps that’s why it’s received such praise. It fills a void in theaters that’s frankly been hanging around for way too long a time. We’ve been left without a heartfelt and comedic coming-of-age story from the perspective of a teenage girl that reached this caliber since the likes of Juno.
I’d also mention that Lady Bird has got the elements of a nostalgia trip working in its favor, at least for those of us who were making it through middle or high school in 2003, and though it’s terrifying to call this film a period piece…It is. From the clothes, to the hair, to the overhead projectors, to the huge flip phones—it’s hard not to look at this film that pays such keen attention to what it meant to be in school in the early 2000s without some amount of affection. I should also add that the references to 9/11, from a remembrance poster at Lady Bird’s school, to her mom mentioning how you can’t walk up to the gate at airports anymore, took me right back to that period immediately after 9/11 when it felt like everything had changed for the worse in sometimes the smallest of ways.
For me—and what seems to be pretty much everyone who’s watched the film—one of its most outstanding storylines is witnessing the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother. When the film begins, the two of them are driving and listening to a John Steinbeck novel on tape, both teary as the audio narration finishes and the book ends. But what begins as a potentially nice moment between a daughter and her mom quickly turns into an argument. And boy do they fight. Throughout the film, Lady Bird’s teenage ego is often checked by her mother, Marion, who constantly reminds Lady Bird of their tough financial situation and insists that Lady Bird only apply to in state schools. Though I was never quite that volatile as a teenager (or at least I think I wasn’t…sorry if I was, Mom), watching these arguments and conversations between Lady Bird and Marion hit close to home. Despite Lady Bird’s need to complain to anyone who will listen about her mom, she also defends her, as she tells her new love Danny, who says that her mother is hard on her, “That’s because she loves me a lot.” This sort of frankness in Lady Bird’s character, and the storytelling of this film, won me over.
What didn’t win me over was (of course) the film’s portrayal of characters of color. The first time we see an Asian character at Lady Bird’s high school, she’s campaigning to be school president, which feels…stereotypical and not particularly open minded. And Lady Bird’s brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), and his girlfriend, Shelly (Marielle Scott), are lumped into one unit; in literally the first scene they’re presented, Lady Bird scornfully observes that they seem to be morphing into the same person. What? Because they’re both obviously not white and have piercings? Good one, Gerwig.
Later in the film, Lady Bird, in one of her many tantrums, even implies that the only reason Miguel got into UC Berkeley was through affirmative action. Out of all the wild accusations and declarations Lady Bird makes throughout the story, I suppose this one struck me as a little strange and uncalled for. By this point in the film, I was pretty used to Lady Bird being a self-centered, fit-throwing teenager, but to call her own brother out for only getting into school because of affirmative action felt like a comedic moment made at the expense of a character’s race. (We don’t ever really get Miguel’s background, I should add, but I suppose it’s implied that he’s adopted.) Especially in a family that, despite its faults, has on the whole shown itself to be quite caring, Lady Bird’s sudden need to throw the race card at Miguel when it hadn’t come up at any other point in Lady Bird caught me off guard. I mean, I guess I’m glad that the characters aren’t quite as color blind as Gerwig makes them out to be up until that point, but this beat in the film didn’t sit well with me.
Like I said in the beginning of this piece, I suppose I can be quite critical when it comes to white directors’ and storytellers’ portrayal of diverse characters (or lack thereof). So I will give Gerwig props for incorporating diversity into her cast and for giving Miguel and Shelly their own moments on screen, such as when Shelly has a conversation with Lady Bird about Marion, and when Miguel bumps into Lady Bird and their father and it’s revealed they’re both interviewing for the same job. I can’t help but add a “but,” though. Because for me, even having to throw in a “props” for incorporating diversity…Really? It’s 2017 (soon to be 2018) and I’m tired of congratulating people who have all sorts of resources and privilege at their fingertips for making diverse casting choices. It should be a given.
That being said, I did find myself identifying with the fringe characters, like Miguel, Shelly, and Lady Bird’s best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Though admittedly people may argue that it’s not always necessary to identify with anyone when watching movies or TV shows, in a time where it’s still easy to get lost in a sea of magazine-perfect white casts, being able to identify with characters even for the shortest of moments is important to me.
In Lady Bird, the most memorable of these moments happened when Danny comes to pick Lady Bird up for Thanksgiving at his grandmother’s. Lady Bird’s mom, dad, and brother all introduce themselves, and then in a small voice from the far corner of the room, Shelly puts up a hand in a tiny wave and says, “I’m Shelly.” Shelly’s position as an outsider in the McPherson family, even though they try to love and include her, is something I can identify with. Being reduced to introducing yourself in a small mouse-like voice and trying to take up as little space and attract as little attention as possible is something I’m unfortunately well-versed in. To be honest, an interaction very similar to Shelly’s had happened to me just the day before, and it was one of the driving factors that led me to go see Lady Bird by myself—I suppose I took myself to the movies because I felt the need to confirm for myself that I can enjoy being alone in just my own company. And luckily for me, I enjoyed the movie too.
What struck me about this film is that there is quite a lot to unpack character-wise and Gerwig manages to tell their stories without having huge story beats, such as a death in the family or a surprise pregnancy. I haven’t even had a chance to cover Lady Bird’s relationships with her dad, best friend, best frenemy, gay boyfriend, mean boyfriend, and school faculty. And for me, that’s where this film makes its mark. Each of the characters leaves an impression and has a sense of realistic familiarity to them, whether it be the indulgent school authority figure who “gets” Lady Bird even if Lady Bird doesn’t want to admit that she does, or her insecure and chubby best friend who tells Lady Bird that some people aren’t built to be happy all the time (I admit I teared up at that part, but just a little). All of these characters create a web of relationships, most good and just a few bad, for Lady Bird to grow and learn from and by the end of the film, we as an audience can see how she’s starting the transition from an ego-driven teenager to a less self-centered adult. No tragedy or huge life event instigates this change and I find that refreshing because movies so often rely on shorthand devices to get their characters to develop and even more refreshing is the way the film ends—but I won’t give that away.
After the credits rolled (yes, I sit through them all like a good ex-film student), I went and got myself a taco plate at one of my favorite cheap spots to eat in Alameda right next to the movie theater. And while digesting both my lunch and the film, I have to say, I’ve concluded that despite my predisposition to dislike Greta Gerwig, I’d take myself out to the movies again to see what she does next.