A teenager by the name of Christine McPherson, who usually goes by her nickname Lady Bird, has just finished touring a series of Californian colleges. She is now being driven back to her home in Sacramento by her mother, Marion. After graduating, she intends to apply to schools outside of California, discontent with the boring life she leads. Marion, believing Lady Bird to be ungrateful, does not agree with her decision and swiftly rebukes her. Lady Bird, deciding she would rather throw herself out of a moving car than suffer her mother’s interminable lectures one second longer, proceeds to do just that.
Lady Bird is a slice-of-life film in the purest sense of the term. It transports the audience to the year 2002, giving them a brief glimpse into what daily life was like back then. Despite Sacramento being the capital of California, Lady Bird finds it to be lacking in prospects. She could simply go to the relatively close San Francisco, but has bigger dreams than that, setting her sights on New York City. She attends a Catholic high school, but she isn’t a particularly religious person as suggested by her visible boredom while attending classes.
It’s plain to see that the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother is highly strained. The family dynamics are not quite what one would call dysfunctional, but the amount of tension between the two characters is firmly established in the opening scene. Although their conversation in the car starts off innocently enough, the tone quickly turns harsh. Lady Bird’s snap decision to eject herself from the car is decidedly extreme, but it’s a testament to how long this mutual contemptuousness has been going on.
When Lady Bird was released, it received a level of praise that had rarely been seen since the launch of Rotten Tomatoes. Within the first week of its release, every single critic recorded on the website had given Lady Bird a positive review. It was lauded for being a female-led film that dispensed with typical Hollywood conventions. Even in the 2010s, the chances of getting a slice-of-life film centered on the complex relationship between a female teenager and her mother were slim. Even the fact that Lady Bird was the kind of film in which female characters could hold meaningful conversations without mentioning a man made it stand out.
The acting performances of Saoirse Ronan were especially lauded for being equal parts down-to-Earth and believable. Although it’s not quite a straight example of a mumblecore film, Lady Bird does draw inspiration from the movement with its naturalistic dialogue that doesn’t sound rehearsed. Laurie Metcalf’s depiction of Marion McPherson was also commended for bringing a well-meaning, yet flawed parent character to life. Parents in cinematic productions tended to come in two flavors: horribly abusive or infallible authority figures. Therefore, Greta Gerwig’s attempt at taking a middle ground did showcase a fair amount of ambition on her part.
Unfortunately, I have to say that, while Lady Bird was a decent effort for its time, it falls short of its intended goals in various ways. The film’s most persistent problem is that the actors are barely afforded a chance to command a scene. Given its mumblecore inspirations, it stands to reason that Lady Bird is driven more by its earnestness than its charisma. Although I can appreciate what Ms. Gerwig was going for, the fact remains that there really isn’t anyone to carry the film.
This is primarily because Lady Bird is barely distinguishable from any of the other countless teen characters throughout cinematic history. When she does stand out, it’s usually for the wrong reasons. As one of her teachers is espousing her pro-life views, she tells them that had her mother decided to get an abortion, she would not be standing before them. To this, Lady Bird responds that had the teacher’s mother received the abortion, they wouldn’t have to listen to her lecture. Speaking as someone who is adamantly pro-choice, this scene did not sit well with me. Although some teenagers have a knack for saying things they obviously didn’t put much thought into, there’s a fine line between that and psychopathy. It strikes me as the kind of line adults write when they assume the younger generation is worse than they actually are. In fairness, she isn’t a terrible person, and her interactions with Danny, who turns out to be gay, are genuinely heartwarming. Because of this, her abortion comment can be dismissed as an isolated piece of bad writing.
Otherwise, what I feel doesn’t help Lady Bird’s character is that she is, by Ms. Gerwig’s own admission, an idealized version of herself. While personal stories can make for an intriguing plot, I often wonder why, in situations like this, the directors don’t just create an autobiographical feature. I could understand this if the director led a life that wouldn’t fit a typical Hollywood narrative. However, Ms. Gerwig didn’t have this problem; she had support from A24, a beloved independent studio that many critics considered the anti-Hollywood. If she wanted to make an autobiographical film with a freeform narrative, she had the capability to do so. As it stands, we get a narrative that strives for realism, yet is obligated to abide by the basic rules of fiction – the worst of both worlds, in other words.
What I feel to be the film’s fatal flaw, however, concerns the character of Marion McPherson. Although Lady Bird is shown to be handful, one could reasonably conclude she is harboring more than a few self-esteem issues. This isn’t helped by Marion incessantly making condescending, passive-aggressive comments at Lady Bird’s expense throughout the film. Although said comments were likely intended to be humorous, they instead paint a portrait of an emotionally abusive control freak. Her absolute worst moment occurs when she, after learning Lady Bird has been wait-listed for a New York City-based college, flies into a rage. This is punctuated when she refuses to see Lady Bird off at the airport. To her credit, she does have a change of heart, but by the time she returns, Lady Bird has already passed through the security checkpoint.
Whenever a character this boorish is presented to the audience, the author is typically given the choice to go in one of two directions with them. The first is to show that, for all of this character’s faults, they are a caring individual deep down inside who will do the right thing when the chips are down. Alternatively, the writers can opt to trick the viewers into believing they’re heading in that direction only to reveal the character’s vileness is the genuine article. For Lady Bird, I feel Ms. Gerwig wanted audiences to believe she had chosen the former path when it practicably feels as though she opted for the second. In the end, Ms. Gerwig vastly overestimated how sympathetic of a character Marion is, and her narrative suffers greatly for it.
Because much of the conflict revolves around Lady Bird’s clashes with Marion, this dissonance actively cheapens the characters’ arcs. The film ends with Lady Bird visiting a Presbyterian Church before leaving an apologetic voicemail on her mother’s answering machine. If Marion fulfilled that one deed capable of proving to Lady Bird she wasn’t as bad as her abrasive demeanor suggested, this would’ve been a genuinely heartfelt moment. As it stands, by the time Marion attempted to amend fences, it was too little, too late. Because of this, Lady Bird apologizing to her mother comes across as somewhat off-putting – as though she is suffering a minor case of Stockholm syndrome. I don’t fault Ms. Gerwig for wanting to write a flawed parent character, but it requires a lot of finesse to pull off successfully.
For all of the praise Lady Bird has received, I ultimately see it as an inferior version of Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen. Both are coming-of-age films starring female protagonists who get into quarrels with their less-than-understanding mothers. However, while that film was carried by its charming leads and willingness to tackle a variety of subjects, Ms. Gerwig’s approach lacks charisma. There is also a fair bit of irony in that, despite being an active rebellion against Hollywood’s practices, Lady Bird falls victim to one of their most criticized practices. It simply isn’t believable to have someone as attractive as Saoirse Ronan play a character who is jealous of the other girls’ good looks.
In light of these problems, Lady Bird is something of a contradiction. It strove to address what were considered by film scholars to be the most common, persistent issues associated with contemporary, big-budget Hollywood productions, yet offers an experience that is itself subject to their myriad trappings. In a way, it evokes something similar to the Uncanny Valley effect in that its attempts to inject realism into the proceedings only succeed in making the out-of-place Hollywood tropes stick out like a sore thumb. Although I don’t think Lady Bird is a bad film, and is genuinely progressive in many ways, its lack of meaningful substance or innovation makes it a difficult recommendation to anyone who doesn’t enjoy these kinds of stories. I commend Ms. Gerwig for what she sought to accomplish, but as a result of her work’s execution issues, it doesn’t quite live up to its potential.
Final Score: 5/10