There’s been a few excellent coming-of-age films in the last couple of years, and Lady Bird is another worthy, insightful addition. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, it follows an eventful year in the life of a teenage girl growing up in Sacramento, California.
When I say “eventful”, I mean “eventful” by the normal standards of an ordinary real-life teenager, featuring some very familiar rites of passage: falling in love and getting your heart broken, having sex for the first time, fighting with your mother, agonising over your college prospects. Lady Bird is not a film about some burning issue or big drama, and though it has a few central threads, a volatile mother-daughter relationship in particular, it largely tells its story as a series of snippets. This lends it a somewhat meandering feel, but it’s not necessarily detrimental, and overall it works as a wonderful character study of a young girl figuring out her identity and living through the bumps of adolescence.
Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is the name the film’s heroine, born as Christine McPherson, insists to be known by – she considers it her true given name, “given to me by me”, as she explains. She is in the last year of high school and dying to get out of Sacramento, ideally to attend an East Coast college, a desire that’s partly motivated by her constant clashing with her equally fiery and strong-willed mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), an overworked nurse with a ruthlessly blunt, pragmatic streak. Though they clearly love each other, the two constantly push each other’s emotional buttons, switching from solidarity to yelling in a flash of a second, and vice versa (there’s a great moment where Marion and Lady Bird go from bristling at each other to exclaiming over a pretty dress). In the opening scene, unable to express herself adequately after yet another spat, Lady Bird hurls herself out of a moving car.
Hovering on the brink of adulthood, Lady Bird is a seething mess of contradictions: self-assured and insecure, callous and kind, likeable and abrasive. She wants to assert her individuality and be a bold non-conformist, while at the same time pretending to be someone she’s not and hiding her less-than-affluent background to fit in with the cool crowd. In the course of a year she falls for a couple of boys, a sweet rich theatre kid (Lucas Hedges) and a leather jacket-wearing musician (Timothée Chalamet), affairs that you know will end in tears because of Lady Bird’s naivety and inexperience.
Gerwig treats her flawed characters with warmth and affection, and though Lady Bird hits the same familiar milestones of hundreds of teenage comedies, nothing about it feels rote, thanks to the astute writing and directing and Ronan’s pitch-perfect acting. The movie is full of emotional and genuinely funny moments; the standout for me was a priest with sports coaching experience who comes to oversee the high school theatre group. You’ll probably never see a funnier onscreen theatre coaching scene in your life.