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Lady Bird Sees the Debut of a New Great Director

Greta Gerwig’s been one of indie filmmaking’s brightest stars for a few years now. With Lady Bird though, she’s making her directorial debut and it’s a role she imparts a sense of comfort in. Because not only is this movie quite clearly very personal, and probably semi-autobiographical, but Gerwig shows she has a very natural directorial eye.
A coming-of-age story, Lady Bird follows a year in the life of free-spirited Sacramento native Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who insists on being called “Lady Bird”. Namely, it’s her final year of high school, as she plans for her future and dreams of going to university in New York, while also dealing with typical teen drama in her friendships and love life. Most notable, is her troubled relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), whose concerns and frank expectations often clash with Lady Bird’s own values and lifestyle.
Lady Bird is certainly a Greta Gerwig film. If it’s title character had at any point taken up dancing, this might have been a prequel to Francis Ha. It’s a film that moves at a relaxed pace and is absolutely character driven. This kind of story about a girl finding herself has been done plenty before and would almost be a cliché of independent film, but Gerwig makes it feel unique. The movie’s got a very particular look to it and a distinct environment. It’s set in the early 2000s and every so often allows world events and politics to infiltrate the story. But at the same time it’s self-contained, as it follows Lady Bird’s school life at a strict Catholic school (reminding me very much of one of the ones I went to), with some very universal story points. High school based coming-of-age stories are expected to abide by certain standards, often the ones set by the likes of John Hughes. But the inspiration here seems to be much more in the vein of The 400 Blows. Lady Bird has a vaguely kindred personality to Antoine Doinel of that film, and the particular examination of misguided youth is very familiar, if executed in a different way. One thing Lady Bird has over that acclaimed film though is a terrific sense of humour, but one that’s especially honest. None of the jokes or comedic scenes feel like a writers’ invention, rather they come naturally from the characters and where they are in life. You really feel like Gerwig lived through and remembered conversations like these, and a few moments especially, are too specific in their quirks to be made up.
Saiorse Ronan is wonderful in this movie. Lady Bird initially feels like a liberal artist caricature, and in many ways she is, but her growth over a year and her self-discoveries go a long way to deepening her. She’s both strikingly genuine and delightfully eccentric, a likeable and really identifiable lead to this story. Laurie Metcalf is also really great as her foil, a figure as strong in her convictions as her daughter. The dynamic between these two, their arguments and more tender moments alike, is the emotional core of the movie and it works superbly on account of how well Ronan and Metcalf perform opposite each other, in humorous, conflicting, and heartfelt moments. Tracey Letts plays Lady Bird’s pleasant and supportive, but down on his luck father with real warmth. And Lucas Hedges proves his versatility as her kindly theatrical love interest Danny. Between this and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, this is a very good time for him at the movies. The supporting cast includes Jordan Rodrigues as Lady Bird’s adopted brother Miguel, Beanie Feldstein as her best friend Julie, as well as Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson.
 Gerwig employs some very specific techniques in her filmmaking here to evoke mood, passage of time, and character perception. A common one that I’ve seen before is the cutting between various locations as a character’s moving past them, to create a graceful flow between shots and establish setting in a visually interesting way. And they’re done aptly, if not all that uniquely. If there were a real flaw, it’s that while there’s a heavy thematic emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship of the piece, it’s sidelined for large portions of the movie -which is fine, because Lady Bird’s social and romantic mistakes are very important. But by the end, this relationship is deemed the film’s central focus which I don’t quite think it is. There’s a point about ten minutes from the credits that would have been the perfect place to end, as with one line it brings to a satisfying close Lady Bird’s personal journey. And the actual final resolution which accentuates the relationship is good too, but is not as fulfilling. Maybe they just needed to be reversed.
Nonetheless, Lady Bird is a really good debut for Greta Gerwig, and I look forward to seeing where she goes now. Again, she feels at home in the directors’ chair and is a talented writer too, this screenplay being one of the best of the year. Her cast is terrific, she imbues charm and some great laughs. It’s a nice little movie that’s sure to connect with a big audience.

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