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In “Lady Bird” Greta Gerwig tells a coming-of-age story centering around a catholic high school senior in Sacramento, set during the 2002-2003 school year. But what’s most significant about “Lady Bird” is the details in which the story was created. Not a single line or action in this movie seemed to be improvised and everything was thought out.
The title of the movie is its own story because when people ask Christine what her name is, she says “Lady Bird” and explains that she gave it to herself, as if she’s trying to create a new identity for herself. “Lady Bird’s” mother is a harsh mother who doesn’t sugarcoat anything especially when it comes to putting her daughter in check about the hardships that their family face, but this bluntness causes ripples within their relationship and pits her into harsh conflict with her daughter. “Lady Bird” wants more than anything to leave Sacramento to go to college somewhere on the East Coast, preferably New York. This is ironic because most coming of age movies like this are about people wanting to go to the Golden State California. Her mother Reminds her that their family can barely afford for her to go to a private catholic school, which prompts “Lady Bird” asks her easygoing father to fill out financial aid forms, unbeknownst to her mother. Once “Lady Bird’s” mother find out about this, it creates a massive separation between the two, which creates more tension and ultimately causes a regrettable decision by her mother.
This film takes “Lady Bird” through adolescent narcissism and evolves that into gratitude and thankfulness. It takes perils of friendship blurred by a need to be accepted by those she deems popular and pits her through honest mistakes of romances, and festering tensions of her home life,(mainly her mother and brother). These struggles lead her to a poignant reconciliation with her family, her home town Sacramento, and herself. Lady Bird’s fine-grained perceptions come with a delicate meter of social distinctions and, with it, the desire for the pleasures, the sense of freedom, that money can buy—money that her parents don’t have. All the relationships in the film are tempered and conditioned by money. There’s Lady Bird’s friendship with Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who lives in a modest apartment with her single mother, and her sweet romance with Danny (Lucas Hedges), whose grandmother lives in her “dream house” and who invites her to his family’s Thanksgiving feast. There’s Lady Bird’s next romance, with the rocker Kyle, who claims to “hate money” but lives a life of comfort on his family’s dime while attending a costly private school. And there’s Lady Bird’s effort to curry friendship with the school’s wealthy queen bee, Jenna, by pretending to be a rich kid herself, tossing out seemingly oblivious remarks with a self-conscious self-control.Gerwig doesn’t romanticize the McPhersons’ genteel frustrations; she shows that they wear on Lady Bird as well.
When Marion chastises Lady Bird for being demanding after Larry loses his job, Lady Bird responds with a smart but immature tantrum, insisting that Marion give her “a number”—tell her how much it costs to raise her: “I’m gonna get older and make a lot of money and write you a check and never speak to you again.” (Marion’s retort is both admirably calm and decisively cutting: “I doubt you’ll get that good of a job.”) Later, speaking of Larry’s depression (and trying to uncouple it from his job insecurity), Marion tells Lady Bird, “Money isn’t life’s report card. Being successful doesn’t mean that you’re happy.” Lady Bird responds, “But he’s not happy.” It’s a brilliant exchange: just as money doesn’t guarantee happiness, it’s no bar to it, either. On the contrary, Lady Bird has a vision of herself—of style and of freedom of action—that will take money to foster and sustain. In her sour retorts, there’s a ring of truth.
The movie is filled with insights about much more than money—for instance, in one series of riffs played mainly for comedy but shadowed with terror, a male math teacher, young and perky, flirts with Julie, never stepping openly out of bounds but clearly grooming a curiosity, even a desire, that hints at grave possibilities. The character of Lady Bird is impulsive, ardent, spontaneous. She disrupts and lampoons a school assembly about abortion; she plays a reckless practical joke on the school’s principal, a nun (Lois Smith); she declares with a curtly decisive frankness when she doesn’t want sex and when she does.
Nonetheless, Lady Bird’s volatile temperament comes through more in the writing and the drama than in the performance; Ronan doesn’t quite display the text’s sudden and mercurial energy. Metcalf, playing a character of taut and measured precision, steals the film with her precise inflections and focussed glances. In general, Gerwig favors precision in “Lady Bird.” If the films in which she came up flaunt ambiguity and the impenetrable, opaque idiosyncrasies of people (a reason why John Cassavetes is a hero to this generation of filmmakers), here she focusses her emotions within tight limits, the better for them to ring out and harmonize with a piercing, poignant clarity.
This air of restraint is conspicuous throughout the film, and the price of that clarity is freedom—Gerwig’s own as well as that of the actors. “Lady Bird” daring, distinctive, and personal in text and theme, is recognizably conventional in texture and style. The bulk of the film is, in effect, pictures of actors acting—acting with skill and care, imagination and vigor, but with no more originality of tone or temperament than Gerwig brings to the direction of the film—at least, to most of the direction of the film. Her attention to the nuanced glances of characters adds extra psychological and comedic dimensions to the dialogue and the action. But for a movie that’s as deeply devoted as “Lady Bird” is to a sense of place, to a tribute to that place, it seems to inhabit that place so thinly, offering snippets of prominent sites without much proximity to them. The movie is nearly devoid of vistas, lacking moments between scenes when nothing special but vision and motion are happening, lacking even the walking and talking in places that the characters frequent. (The tendency is clear from the start, when a scene of Lady Bird and Julie visiting their dream houses seems nearly detached from the streets around them.) It’s also devoid of narrative vistas—its scenes are cut tightly to fit and leave the characters, and the actors, little in the way of comings and goings, of space to breathe, to look, to be. (As I watched the film, I yearned to see what went on between the characters just after each scene, between each transition.
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