Review: Saoirse Ronan soars in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”


Courtesy of The Daily Edge

Lady Bird is an instant classic, the rare high school film that feels like spending an actual day in a high school, with actual high school students.

Joe Cross, Staff Writer

The greatest films are the ones that appear differently depending on one’s perspective. Looked at it from the perspective of a high school senior like myself, Greta Gerwig’s remarkable directorial debut is unflinchingly relatable, a tale of teenage alienation and the desire to stand out from the crowd that resonates deeply. But looked at from the perspective of one of the film’s few adults, it’s a heart-wrenching tale of a mother doing her best to provide for a daughter who doesn’t appreciate her. Equal parts “Frances Ha” and “Clueless,” “Lady Bird” is an instant classic, the rare high school film that feels like spending an actual day in a high school, with actual high school students.

“Lady Bird” follows Christine (or, as she has renamed herself, Lady Bird), a Catholic school senior, over a year in her life in the doldrums of Sacramento circa 2002, a place (and time period) she’s desperate to leave, despite poor grades and little ambition. The set-up is enough for a great film on its own, but it’s actress-turned-director Greta Gerwig’s attention to detail that seals it. Its portrayal of early 2000s suburban California is so rich that you forget that it’s technically a period piece. It doesn’t feel a need to namedrop cultural landmarks of the time to reinforce the time period it’s set in or make jokes that are only humorous because of the audience’s knowledge of world events since then. Instead, it establishes its environment through subtler details, like background news reports on the War in Iraq and discussions regarding now-antique types of cell phones, effectively creating feelings of nostalgia for a time that much of its target audience (young, aimless people like Lady Bird herself) is too young to remember.

Beyond being just another great film about the trials and tribulations of high school, “Lady Bird” represents another entry in a new, welcome, movement in American independent film, one centered on realism and human emotion, and one that cares less about traditional plot structure. For the past half-decade, films released by the studio A24 have been consistently interesting and worthwhile while adhering to this style, and “Lady Bird” is certainly no exception to the rule, joining the ranks of previous A24 releases “Moonlight” and “The Florida Project” as one of the finest examples in the genre, and serving as a vital reminder of why supporting independent films and diverse voices behind the camera are so important.

It’s also just an incredibly charming, delightful movie, one that transcends its original purpose as something for mothers and daughters to bond over. “Lady Bird” will appeal to even those crowds worn out from the massive amounts of coming-of-age dramas in recent years, for its sheer relatability and its unique perspective on familiar circumstances. It’s a simple story about a high school girl who genuinely acts in a way a high schooler would, and the film’s humanistic approach never makes it feel that her feelings and opinions aren’t valid because of her age or social status, which is an admirable feat on its own. Each character is so thoroughly developed and multifaceted that it’s hard not to see aspects of yourself in some of them no matter where you come from, and Greta Gerwig succeeds tremendously in her intent to offer a more diverse spin on the classic but unfortunately predominantly male-oriented bildungsromans. Saoirse Ronan is at her hilarious best in the titular role, a deadpan student who’s completely apathetic towards school in her final months of it, but will still do whatever it takes to have her voice heard, and Laurie Metcalf gives an incredibly understated and melancholic performance as her despondent, world-weary mother. The two have a natural dynamic that perfectly complements the realism of the film, and it never shies away from making one or the other look as though they have wronged the other. Both are flawed, undeniably human characters, and in a world where the box office is dominated by superhero movies preaching that there can be only good and bad with no gray area in the middle, it’s a minor miracle.

This review would be incomplete if I didn’t talk about just how terrifyingly real this all felt to me. These characters aren’t just Hollywood caricatures, but rather the people you pass in the hallway every day, who sit across from you in economics. Myself being a high school senior whose main interests lie in theatre, who is also behind in the college application process and terrible at math, I couldn’t help but feel that it hit a little too close to home. These past four years have been home to some of the best and worst times of my life, and “Lady Bird” accurately captures that high school isn’t all great, or all terrible. Instead, it’s a time for growth, one to find one’s place in the world, and the movie shows that it’s okay to not be entirely satisfied with that. Instead, it’s a reminder to make the most of those last few months.

Of course, this is all territory that’s been covered before in countless other films (Lady Bird even has a poster on her wall of one of them, Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore”), but what makes the film stand out is how it all feels like a distant, fading memory. There’s no epilogue, and we never even cut to a future depiction of any the characters, because the film never needs to. Its warm, light colors and depiction of time passing without any title cards to show it turns the film into something like a time capsule from one’s own senior year, with all its heartbreaks and self-discovery, and at times it even plays like a filmed yearbook that can sometimes be emotionally painful to look back at, and other times incredibly sweet. Its main character may not care about much, but it’s beyond refreshing to see a film about high school that does. It portrays people outside the socially accepted norms of the times without the slightest hint of cynicism or irony, as most films like it so tiredly declare the years spent in high school are without a doubt the worst of one’s life. “Lady Bird” never sinks so low, and the resulting film serves as a bittersweet love letter to its heroine’s upbringing (and Gerwig’s as well) and the people and places that shaped her. It’s an incredibly touching film and a masterful first feature for Greta Gerwig.