Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s snappish voice and self-confident-but-self-deprecating demeanor – so clearly developed after a decade of starring roles in independent features – lingers over every scene in her directorial debut, Lady Bird, even though she herself does not appear on camera at all. Certainly, Gerwig’s style clearly has antecedents in the Mumblecore movement – Lady Bird really isn’t the case of a truly new voice being cast out into the cinema, although it harbors no pretensions about being one – so perhaps I’m less singularly bowled over by her work her than some other critics. (It brings to mind the fact that few people have actually seen the many films Lady Bird owes a debt to). But with such fearless and sharply articulated characters and a jagged, spasmodic visual and tonal style, the film skitters about and casually subverts any hypotheses audiences may bear about justified or rational character responses to the world around you. Acerbic without being mean-spirited and incisive without dipping its fangs in life-sucking venom, Lady Bird isn’t meaningfully “new” – Gerwig’s perspective in the form of other beings has existed in cinema for decades waiting to be heard – but Lady Bird is a thoroughly great, quietly complicated variation on existing themes nonetheless.
It’s a chief pleasure of the film that the brittle Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), dubbing herself Lady Bird early on in a statement of rebellion and personal individuation that the film amusingly posits is essentially arbitrary, doesn’t really “come of age” in this coming of age film. Although the film skips and teeters and wobbles from college visits to Thanksgiving to Christmas to prom to, well, college, Lady Bird herself fluctuates emotionally and resonates at different frequencies more than ‘growing’ as a person. The film, in tempo and attitude, resists the compulsion to linearize its exploration of Sacramento life as a “coming of age”. Moments are not freighted with the pseudo-importance of narrative centers, as though one scene should clarify everything around them. Would-be arcs become excitable vibrations, simultaneously dropping below and exceeding the sterile imagination of narratives organized around central, singular conflicts and personal growth.
Numerous other figures parade into Lady Bird’s senior year of high school, including a depressed, genial father (Tracy Letts), best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), super-cool-but-superficial “new best friend” Jenna (Odeya Rush), compassionate nice-dude first-boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges, proving he’s one to watch after last year’s Manchester-by-the-Sea) and too-cool-for-school, self-fashioned intellectual second-boyfriend Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). But the primary figure is undoubtedly her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Although Gerwig’s own relationship with her mother may have been acrimonious and unstable, the writer-director obviously loves her enough to gift a version of her to Metcalf, and, in turn, to allow Metcalf to breathe such astonishing life into this interpretation of her. Certainly, Ronan, interpellating Gerwig’s mannerisms and personality into her own awards-worthy idiom of youthful disaffection and touchy, barbed rebellion, is astounding as the protagonist. But Metcalf latches on to a harder, harsher role and explores more unorthodox cracks through it: a woman who is both simultaneously and alternately frustrated, irritated, disappointed, angry, sad, and just-plain-over her daughter while struggling to grasp the filigrees of love that remain and to discover her own personal irritations at her own situational inability to provide for her daughter’s desires.
The friction between the two central figures is such a spellbinding amalgam of the cutting and the silently appreciative that the rest of the film (very slightly) pales in comparison. But Lady Bird reveals that Gerwig has manipulated her decade of acting in similar features into a how-to internship in not only making films but developing a voice that radiates a wonderfully decentered charisma. With editor Nick Huoy in tandem, they temporalize a year as a series of breathless spasms, wide negative spaces, and disconcerting aporias, creating a film that marries the best of adolescence with mature adulthood, being both spiritedly, shambolically messy without dipping into arbitrarily freewheeling structure-less-ness.
The attendant mixture of order and chaos – with one sometimes playing, or revealing, the other – is loaded with grace notes, not only about characters but about time, mood, and place. For instance, Lady Bird’s Catholic school is minutiae, wrinkle, and twist, inflecting all of life rather than serving as an all-encompassing, oppressive, monolithically flattening force of life that takes over the entire film and turns it into a “Catholic” film. And, although clearly ambivalent about her hometown of Sacramento, Gerwig plays it as a place whose out-of-touch demeanor plays as equally welcoming and disturbing on the screen. It’d be easy to say she renders the city anonymously, her camera not having any style of its own, but it’s more that she treats it as anonymous space, a place in search of a style. The musical signifiers of the 2002-2003 school year are all straight out of 1996 and Lady Bird herself still rocks a denim jacket, a particularly appreciated marker of suburban malaise that captures the town as a dulled echo of the past while also summing up the early ‘00s as a time either flailing for or generally disinterested in locating a new identity for itself.
It’s rare that a film (relatively) banalizes its male characters rather than its women, which is a breath of fresh air in and of itself. But it would mean little without Gerwig’s ability to find grace and grouchy weaponry in seemingly-quotidian forms of cinematic and character rebellion, fashioning each scene as a minor-key implosion of satisfyingly-sharded beauty and imperfection, marrying pulses both irascible and humanistic. Of course, there are loose ends and hanging threads, but that kind of scruffiness is part and parcel with the film’s energy, a joie de vivre earned through remaining curious about various aspects of life rather than, as with most films, hemming in its perspective to hold the polychromatic instability of life at a distance so as to acquiesce to the order of narrative. I’d be pleased enough if all Lady Bird accomplished was the seemingly ungodly task of reinterpreting twee as prickly and cloying as grouchy, but Gerwig’s vision is decidedly more textured and essential than that.