Film Review

Lady Bird

The Indie Darling Soars and Then Some
Lady Bird is a film for people that get excited when they see film festival laurels on DVDs, and Gerwig is here to confirm that those people are the best kind of people.
This post contains spoilers.

Film Notes

  • It’s impossible to escape the indie-ness and mumblecore-ness that oozes into every aspect of this production, largely thanks to Greta Gerwig, whose acting and writing history pattern much of the indie films that Lady Bird pokes at.
  • Lady Bird’s humor and drama is always operating at two levels: a loving homage to Sundance darlings of similar beats, and its own indie spirit. It’s a meta-indie.
  • A Howard Zinn book appearance! A Rushmore poster appearance!
  • Lady Bird captures this unique streak that’s special to relationships between mother and daughter. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) fight and reconcile in these tender, nuanced moments where hundreds of emotions are flying around.
  • “Simple story where the depth lies in small moments” is a promise made by many of these coming-of-age tales. Lady Bird has a lot of them.
  • There’s quite a few minor characters that play major roles in Lady Bird’s life. Best proof that these years are formative years.
  • Money, or lack of it, threads its way through much of this film. From the father’s depression (a performance of truly transparent frankness and honesty), to the mother’s meticulous nature, being poor is rarely explored in this subgenre and Lady Bird benefits from it. With that said, much of this is still through a very white lens.

Film Take

Early in the film, Saoirse Ronan’s character, Christine, who’s rebelliously renamed herself Lady Bird, exclaims, “I hate California, I want to go to the east coast. I want to go where culture is, like New York, or Connecticut or New Hampshire.” It’s a statement layered with angst, rebellion, and just a bit of obnoxiousness. It’s also immediately a source of comfort, from the tone being set to the familiarity of the sentence. Lady Bird fits all the archetypes of a coming-of-age protagonist, and the film creates a rich world of tropes and self-references to accomodate her. Lady Bird’s humor and drama is always operating in these two levels: a loving homage to Sundance darlings of similar beats, and its own indie spirit. It’s a meta-indie.

Coming-of-age narratives and the like have been done so often–and it’s been continuously produced and consumed by such a specific subgroup of people–that these productions have devolved into a maze of inside jokes and self-fulfilment. The independent spirit of a The Spectacular Now, or a Juno, or any of Noah Baumbach’s work, remains earnest and compelling, but it’s effectiveness slowly chips away as the beats start to mimic each other. In many ways, Lady Bird bucks the trend by simply being better.

Take stereotypical teen anarchist Kyle Scheible, Lady Bird’s second boyfriend. Early on in their relationship, Kyle warns Lady Bird on the dangers of cell phones, and how it allows governments to track every move they make. Lady Bird laughs it off only to find Kyle completely serious, and finds herself completely in love. It’s a funny scene that captures the self-important profoundness that teens often get caught up in, but it’s also relatable and honest. More of the latter can be found when Lady Bird loses her virginity to Kyle only to find out he’s not the virgin she thought he was. She’s devastated, and he doesn’t understand. At this point, Kyle extends beyond being a funny parody of indie films, and into an earnest dynamic to examine and understand. The structure of these scenarios are common, the awareness and nuance is new.

The difference, when compared to just a standard character or situation, is subtle, but distinct. It only works because Gerwig has such a deep understanding of what makes many of these mumblecores tick, and because she has such a deep love for them. Each moment becomes an genre homage where the audience is not only in on the joke, but also hyper-aware of the mechanics that make the joke land, giving way for a deeper understanding of character and society. From the awkward Danny O’Neill, to the lovable father, Larry McPherson, each character’s existence is an entendre, a vital piece in telling the story of Lady Bird, but also a meta-commentary on the art form.

Other touches that add to the package include an authentic relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, frank conversations about being poor, and a really rad nun. The indie film mantra has often rested on the promise that “depth lies in the small moments,” and Lady Bird has many.

One that stands out has Lady Bird and her mother thrift shopping. Her mother’s peculiarities–complaining about this and that–push Lady Bird to the edge. She’s aggravated that her mother seems nice and understanding to everyone but her. Then, in a moment that feels truly magical, a perfect dress is found and they both rejoice in unison. In these small but significant moments, Lady Bird soars.