The links between the film Lady Bird and the children’s Nursery Rhyme of the same name are confirmed by the strap line on the poster which simple reads ‘Fly Away Home’. In the story seventeen year old Christine, who has given herself the nickname Lady Bird, is itching to get away from the town she grew up in, fascinated by the idea of a life in more sophisticated places. Like the little red bug in the famous rhyme though her focus ought to be on her home where there are family members who love her and who she takes for granted. The film has been really well received so maybe similar projects will start to emerge. Could we get a movie called Humpty Dumpty about a spy in Cold War Berlin held at Checkpoint Charlie and unable to decide whether to give up his associates so that he can get home with valuable intel? The tagline would simply be ‘Sat on the wall’. Or maybe The Grand Old Duke of York centering around an army general responsible for getting fifteen battalions of soldiers back from behind enemy lines with the tagline ‘He had ten thousand men’? What about Little Bo about a high school queen who falls out of favour with her shallow sycophantic friends only to find real companionship with the nerds. The tagline: ‘She lost her sheep’.
Actually that last one isn’t so far away from the plot of Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut is demonstrably a High School movie. It differs from other films of this type in that it is garnering mainstream awards attention (for this reason they are choosing instead to refer to it as a coming of age drama) but it is a High School Movie nonetheless. It ticks a number of genre boxes. It has the cool rich kids judging others on what their parents earn, the more genuine teens from the wrong side of the tracks, the forgiving teacher they can all relate to and it heavily features the prom. It’s essentially a reimagining of Pretty in Pink but with no Duckie and with the protagonist having a mother.
I’m not actually sure why the film is getting nominations and gongs when things like The Breakfast Club, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Heathers never did. It not that it isn’t good, not at all, but this sort of film does not normally get this sort of recognition. Perhaps it is because it is the best example of a well established U.S cinema genre, as was the case with the last Lord of the Rings or Gladiator. Hollywood does like to celebrate itself and maybe with this film the High School Movie has come of age itself.
If you are familiar with Greta Gerwig’s writing from Mistress America and Francis Ha you’ll know what to expect with Lady Bird. Like those films this is about a young woman finding her place in the world with sharp wit but without the practical smarts to match. Gerwig’s work bears comparison to early Woody Allen with her slightly awkward protagonists and her sly observations on real life but Allen, who Gerwig is all set to replace now that the world is realising he is a creep, has more affectation and caricature in his work. Gerwig took the lead in her previous pictures but now that she is calling the shots as well as writing the words she has put someone else centre stage and also differently to Woody Allen she hasn’t just cast the person who is most able to effectively channel her.
Saoirse Ronan is superb as Christine/Lady Bird. At first glance this isn’t one of her strongest performances, it’s not as obviously powerful as her work in Brooklyn, Byzantium, Hanna or The Lovely Bones, but there is a gentle and effortless charisma on display here that isn’t as easy to achieve as she makes it look. Lady Bird is fairly self centred and isn’t always, or even often, considerate to those around her but Ronan makes her unfailingly likeable, even more so perhaps than Gerwig has in the parts she has played. With another actor the film could well have fallen apart a little. This is not a criticism of Gerwig’s screenplay but her heroine does not always make good decisions and it is a credit to the writer/director and her leading lady that you never lose patience with the character.
Giving excellent support is Laurie Metcalf, once again taking a Mum role. Most of the film concentrates on the mother and daughter relationship and there is hurt and disappointment on both sides. It is both and touching and frustrating but totally believable watching them desperately trying to connect with one another while stubbornly not allowing each other to gain an upper hand. The rest of the cast is nicely rounded out by actors from this year’s other awards contenders, as if Hollywood has suddenly become a small company of performers. There’s Tracey Letts from The Post, Lucas Hedges from Three Billboards and Timothée Chalamet from Call Me By Your Name. Some people are facing hard decisions about which gangs to sit with on Academy Awards night this year.
I say this hesitantly but I don’t think Lady Bird will fly away with many more statuettes. Ronan may get a BAFTA to go with her Globe but this won’t be her year at the Oscars. Her time will most certainly come though and based on this so will Greta Gerwig’s. She has been a celebrated new voice in American cinema for some years now but Lady Bird proves her to be an important new director as well and this will no doubt be the start of a significant filmography.
The Ripley Factor:
Lady Bird doesn’t have an overtly feminist message, although the protagonist seems to think she needs a guy in her life only to discover she doesn’t, but it is the story of two women written and directed by a woman. No one is objectified or belittled but neither is anyone unrealistically presented. Greta Gerwig is also only the fifth female ever to be nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, after Linda Wertmüller, Sophia Coppola, Jane Campion and Kathryn Bigelow (twice). All of this makes Lady Bird an important film and it deserves its place in the conversation.
Is this one for the kids?
Lady Bird is rated 15, it has a fair amount of swearing and some blunt sex references but there is nothing in this story of being a teenager to offend anyone who has ever been a teenager.