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Film Review: Lady Bird

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After a slew of Oscar nominations, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird has a lot to live up to when it releases for UK audiences later this month… and you certainly won’t be disappointed. Saoirse Ronan delivers a fantastically nuanced performance in this coming-of-age film that’ll make you feel nostalgic for being 18, whether you’re 19 or 90.

image from "Lady Bird," courtesy of A24 

Ronan plays the titular role of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a pink-haired high school senior at a Catholic school in Sacramento, California. While the unique, place-specific references and attitudes might go over our heads as Brits, the atmosphere that pervades the film does a remarkable amount to communicate the desired effect.

Some of the problems Lady Bird faces are all-too-familiar from every coming of age film ever: first loves, awkward boyfriends, fumbling through sex, applying for colleges, ditching her best friend for the cool kids — none of these are particularly groundbreaking. The thing that takes this film to award-worthy level is the unflinching way that it tackles much more sensitive issues too.

The McPherson family are poor compared to Lady Bird’s classmates, and this has an impact on all aspects of their lives. The subject of aspirations is a touchy one in their wrong-side-of-the-tracks household, and the result is a vibrant and compassionate picture of life under the glass ceiling that kids from low-income households battle against. 

Though petty conflicts with friends and boyfriends decorate the surface of the film, the true core of it is the tempestuous relationship between Lady Bird and her mother Marion, played by the phenomenal Laurie Metcalf. Every woman will find something to relate to in how these two interact with each other. Somehow, Gerwig has managed to capture and distill the absolute truth of the mother-daughter relationship that, although it is specific to their situation, transcends to become universal.

The antagonism between them comes in sharp bursts, triggered by anything and everything, while the tenderness they display towards each other sneaks into the gaps in between. There is such a raw honesty in their screaming matches and their long silences, as well as how swiftly their attitudes towards each other shift and change. Metcalf so perfectly captures the exhausted frame over a steely spine of the overworked yet determined Marion, while Ronan’s pendulum swings between fiery defiance and increasingly desperate apologies are nothing short of heartbreaking. 

In an interview with Bust Magazine, Gerwig said: "I like writing about women in relation to other women — mothers and daughters, friends, sisters, mentors — because men don’t know what women do when they aren’t there.” Though it might be considered simply a pithy quote by someone before seeing the film, it’s something that rings incredibly and movingly true after. I’ve long been a huge advocate for diverse storytellers being given opportunities to tell their own stories, but even I was shocked by just how much of a difference it makes having a woman penning the script and directing.

Tracy Letts gives a perfectly understated performance as Lady Bird’s sweet, sad father, and Beanie Feldstein is perfect in her role as enthusiastic best friend Julie. Lois Smith has a small but memorable part as Sister Sarah Joan, a nun with some wise advice. Timothée Chalamet doesn’t quite have the opportunity to show off his Oscar-nominated skill in this film, but his character’s teenage surety is hilarious, while Lucas Hedges stands out much more through his character Danny.

The delicate and vibrant subject of sexual awakening is handled with grace and realism, but it really is the family dynamic which cements this film’s role as a classic that will no doubt be watched and cried over for many generations to come. The way that kids can be so cruel to their parents, sometimes intentionally, and sometimes without even realising it at all. The selfishness that young people are so blind to in themselves but so quick to point out in their parents. The mountain of pride and shame that exists like an elephant in the room of low-income households, and how that affects parents and children alike. These are all woven beautifully in to a film where the huge emotional moments happen in the dressing room whilst shopping for prom dresses, or over the washing up. 

Trust me, it’s worth the hype. 

Lady Bird releases in UK cinemas on February 16th.

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