‘Lady Bird’ is a masterpiece coming-of-age movie that hits all the right beats

Photo via Allstar/A24

Spoilers ahead.

We are first introduced to the title character of Lady Bird as she makes her way home from a college tour with her mother. They have the kind of closeness that allows them to cry together while listening to The Grapes of Wrath on tape in the car and, we later learn, go to open houses for fun on Sundays. Soon, however, idle conversation escalates into a heated discussion about Lady Bird’s general dissatisfaction with her current life. Fed up, in an act of melodramatic defiance, she exits the still-moving vehicle.

Jump cut to a close-up of Lady Bird’s arm, now in a pink cast, the only writing on it being F*** YOU MOM. Cue opening credits.

Written and directed by actress Greta Gerwig (best known for playing difficult and complex young women in transitional phases of their own), Lady Bird takes place during the protagonist’s senior year in high school. The film is largely autobiographical and personal, influenced by Gerwig’s own youth and set in her hometown of Sacramento, in 2002, when she herself was Lady Bird’s age.

It’s a textbook coming-of-age story replete with firsts: experimentation with recreational drugs, after-school part-time jobs, loss of virginity. Dreams are frustrations, friendship is both fickle and forever, and college is one big question mark. There’s nothing to do in town but to hang out at an empty parking lot or look at magazines in the grocery store, but there’s a hungry certainty that something must be out there, if you just leave fast enough.

 

It’s a textbook coming-of-age story replete with firsts: experimentation with recreational drugs, after-school part-time jobs, loss of virginity.

 

At the center of it all is, of course, Lady Bird, played with equal amounts of plucky sincerity and poise by Saoirse Ronan. (Fun fact: The traces of acne on Lady Bird’s face are 100% Ronan’s — she gamely decided not to cover them up because they felt more authentic.)

What sets Lady Bird apart is the way it handles its characters with care and respect. In a John Hughes movie, parents are well-meaning but clueless, the source of comic relief or conflict. Gerwig subverts this by having Lady Bird’s passage into adulthood be a direct parallel to her mother’s difficulty in letting her go, so she could be on her own and figure herself out.

Background events and seemingly throwaway lines hint at the rich inner lives of secondary and minor players, from her father’s depression to the reason her drama teacher beats them all at “first one to cry wins.” When a first boyfriend turns out to be gay, it is a mortifying experience for the heroine, typically played for laughs before he disappears off the face of the planet. Rarely, if ever, is his side of the story shown, but in Lady Bird, Danny gets an aftermath, and sympathy, and the ability to express his own fears and insecurities.

Lucas Hedges as Danny and Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird in Lady Bird. | Photo via A24

The closest thing to a caricature, really, is the second love interest, Kyle — a poor man’s Nick Valensi with a bass guitar riding low, who chain-smokes while he reads at a cafe and recites conspiracy theories while perched on the trunk of a car. He’s dreamy, he’s danger, he’s probably a d*ck.

In the above mentioned opening scene, Lady Bird is given what is called an establishing character moment — by expressing a desire to “live through something,” arguing passionately about wanting to go off to a place like New York (“where the culture is”) for college, and flinging herself out of the car, she is immediately shown to be ambitious, artistic, and headstrong. Born Christine, she insists that her mother call her by her self-given name, a sign of individuality, a strong sense of identity, and maybe even rebellion. As soon as she turns 18, she buys a packet of cigarettes, a scratch card, and a Playgirl, just because she can.

All of this is to say that it rang so true for me, as it clearly has for so many others. It’s precisely the retrospective framing that resonates with people who have already come of age, and have enough experience to understand. When you’re growing up, you don’t figure it all out automatically — obstinate idealism, gratitude, the idea of being “enough” as a child or a parent.

Like Lady Bird, I went to catholic school, and seeing her kneeling in church sent me right back to First Friday Mass, when I would sit across the aisle from a crush and picture us holding hands during Our Father — until he excused himself to go to the bathroom and accidentally switched seats with someone else, dashing my hopes completely. (Drat!)

I remember what it’s like to be told to be practical, to learn how to compromise, when my own mom would tell me that there’s no money in writing, and would I even make it anyway. Then hoping — no, resolving — that I would prove her wrong, but also that I would make up for what she has sacrificed and make her proud regardless, because I knew I was meant for this. Just like the pink-haired girl onscreen is meant for whatever comes next.

Grade: A

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#movies #self

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