The year is 2002 and the titular character of Lady Bird is a senior year student at a Catholic high school in the suburbs of Sacramento. Thus far, the character is a mirror of Greta Gerwig, for whom the film marks a directorial debut. Though not autobiographical – the director/persona relationship is more spiritual here – it is the personal touch of a life lived that allows Gerwig’s film to shine. Lady Bird is tender, stark and unfailingly honest.
The cream of cinema’s young talent are to be found here, with Timothée Chalamet and Lucas Hedges supporting a terrific Saoirse Ronan. Four times BAFTA nominated at just 23, Ronan plays Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson, a soon-to-be high school graduate with a fiercely independent streak and even bolder red mop of hair.
Having long since done away her birth name, in favour of a title (‘I gave it to myself, it is given to me by me’), “Lady Bird” is what some grandmother might call ‘a piece of work’. In the close of one early squabble with her mum (Laurie Metcalf – splendid), Lady Bird simply launches herself out of their moving car, resulting in a broken arm. For much of the remaining film, Ronan wears her arm in a vividly pink cast, iconically symbolising her defiance, individuality and underlying fragility.
At the heart of Lady Bird – a Boyhood-meets-Juno coming of age piece – is an insightful explosion of that special mother and daughter known to many, certainly Gerwig, but here as jarred as it is love bound. It is a film more concerned with the passage of time more so than matters of plot and, as such, revolves around its markers. Milestones include the first boyfriend, the loss of virginity, the break ups and the Mean Girls and Clueless cliques of changing personalities.
There is also the rising tide of graduation and collegiate life beyond it; Lady Bird dreams of an east coast education (in a place ‘where culture is’), against teachers and family who believe she is neither smart enough nor wealthy enough. Of the latter, her mother, a life-worn nurse, is pragmatically and bluntly definite.
In spite of these regular coming-of-age beats, Lady Bird is a pleasingly unique offering. Gerwig’s characters are vivid enough to overcome the types one might anticipate, with Beanie Feldstein a more rounded and complex ‘best friend’ than the trope requires to rewarding effect. Likewise, there is a thoroughly lived in quality to the central performances of Ronan and Metcalf, crafting the duo a compelling and emotionally true cinematic journey that is brave enough to fragment seemingly beyond repair.
If the film’s relationships are fragmented, its script, structure and pace are not. Gifted so excellent a cast, Gerwig is able to realise her vision is a carefully mannered and natural fashion, never failing to implant wit and absolute honesty. A score by Jon Briony well captures the essence of the whole, which is embodied in warmth, quirks and emotional resonance.
When it comes to the name: Lady Bird, no clear answer is forthcoming here, although links to Lady Bird Johnson seem unlikely. Instead, we might relate it to spotted, red bugs, who are bright in hue to warn away predators and are each uniquely designed.