Over the next month, The Atlantic’s “And, Scene” series will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment and unpacking what it says about 2017. Next up is Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. (Read our previous entries here.)
There’s an appreciable freneticism to Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s wonderful coming-of-age dramedy about a 17-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) growing up in Sacramento, California, in 2002. The film shuffles from scene to scene with jazzy abruptness, bottling an entire senior year in high school (and the early moments of freshman year in college) into a 95-minute running time. Life-changing events for this protagonist (her father losing his job, acceptance into college, the loss of her virginity) bump up against funnier, more inconsequential ones; it’s one of the most authentic depictions of that tumultuous period on the cusp of adulthood I’ve ever seen in a film. The memories are all there, but Lady Bird (real name Christine, but she’s adopted a more interesting nom de plume) won’t really be able to sort through them all for years to come.
That intense storytelling approach is helped by the period setting—the Iraq War begins during the film, unfolding in the background and dialing up the sense of a world thrown into chaos. But it’s also fueled by the rich, authentic portrayal of Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), which can be aggressive and confrontational in one moment and quietly sweet in the next. In Lady Bird, Gerwig somehow found a new angle on the mother-daughter movie that doesn’t shy away from each character’s flaws but never makes either of them remotely monstrous. Both Lady Bird and Marion have infinite capacity to wound each other, yes, but that’s because of how deeply connected, and at times frighteningly similar, they are. There’s no better example of that than their quiet confrontation in a dressing room near the end of the film, as Lady Bird tries to pick a prom dress.
In the film’s final act, Lady Bird’s tumultuous senior year is winding down. She dated a nice guy from the school play (Lucas Hedges) who she then realized was gay, and is at the tail-end of a misguided fling with the sardonic bad boy Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), which drove a wedge between her and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Lady Bird’s mother, a nurse, is constantly on her case about something, be it the state of her room, the way she talks about her family’s social status (saying they’re from “the wrong side of the tracks”), and a million other anxieties that often seem fueled by the family’s precarious financial position. Marion is deeply concerned with presentation, while Lady Bird (like many a teenager) often blurts out observations that come off as tactless or hurtful. But, as the audience has already figured out, that’s a trait she shares with her mother.
“It’s too tight, fuck!” Lady Bird cries as she tries on one dress. “Well, I suggested you not have that second helping of pasta,” Marion replies through the door. “Honey, you seem upset about it, and I’m trying to help,” she adds as her daughter cries out in protest, “You’re giving me an eating disorder!” Throughout the scene, Gerwig never cuts to inside the dressing room; the camera stays on Marion (with Lady Bird occasionally emerging in a new dress), with Metcalf registering the tiniest facial twinges every time she realizes she’s said something that goes too far. Finally, Lady Bird emerges in a pink, slightly sparkly number. “I love it,” she sighs. “Is it too pink?” Marion replies.
In Marion’s eyes, there’s a fine line between being critical and being helpful, and she’s straddling it, but to her daughter, every criticism is another stab in the heart, an attack on her individuality from which she can’t recover. They’re both wrong, and that’s what’s so wonderful about Gerwig’s script; it lets its characters be wrong without the viewer losing affection for them. “Why can’t you say I look nice?” Lady Bird asks. “I thought you didn’t even care what I think,” Marion counters. “I’m sorry, I was telling you the truth. Do you want me to lie?”
“I just wish … I wish that you liked me,” Lady Bird says sorrowfully. “Of course I love you.” “But do you like me?” Marion can only reply with that most stiflingly parental of philosophies: “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.” “What if this is the best version?” Lady Bird asks. Marion looks at her askance, saying more in a glance than any piece of dialogue could. Believe me, it’s not, she’s thinking. But also, It had better not be. It’s simultaneously heartbreaking and heartfelt, an entire relationship captured in a look, for better or worse.
It’s exciting that Lady Bird has become one of the surprise indie successes of the year, both in terms of critical reception and box office. Not just because it’s a female-led film from a female writer-director, something that’s still sorely lacking in the industry, but also because it’s such a grounded tale, finding real drama and lasting emotion in the adolescence of a flawed, lovable protagonist. So many of the female-led films that Hollywood takes note of (particularly at Oscar season) are tales of extreme suffering, or revenge, or true-story heroism. But just as crucial is finding something powerful in regular life, an ordinary year lived, an exchange of dialogue, a memorable song, or even just a mother’s glance.
Previously: The Florida Project
Next Up: The Disaster Artist