There are a lot of reasons why I drove around for 20 extra minutes after seeing “Lady Bird” so I could cry about it in peace, and why two of my friends texted me after watching it this weekend to say that it broke them too (in a good, cathartic way).
The film is witty, moving and almost tragically comedic. But what elevates it from an average coming-of-age tale to a complete revelation is its brutal honesty about being a female in high school.
The only recent film that’s come close to tackling this subject with such brazen authenticity is last year’s “The Edge of Seventeen” (before that, it was probably 1988’s “Heathers”). Also centered around an ungrateful California teen battling her mother and alienating her classmates, it now feels like a sort of stepping stone to “Lady Bird.” The film explores the mind of insufferable high schooler Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld), and all the havoc she wreaks while enveloped in her own cocoon of narcissism and self-pity.
“Edge of Seventeen” is great, and its drama — Nadine’s family still struggling with the death of her father years ago; her best friend dating her brother — is real. But it’s still a lighter film, as the mother-daughter drama takes a backseat to its central rom-com plot and friendly conflict. “Lady Bird” delves a few more layers into the often trivialized, rarely accurately represented lives of high schoolers and how they affect those around them. Nothing in the film is off-limits — not even masturbation jokes. Where “Edge of Seventeen” holds back, “Lady Bird” does not.
Saoirse Ronan plays Lady Bird (real name: Christine McPherson), who’s given herself the nickname, much to her family’s annoyance. She’s a restless but unmotivated 17-year-old constantly at war with her neurotic but well-meaning mother (Laurie Metcalf), her Catholic school administrators and, often, herself. All the high school senior wants is to attend college far away from her hometown of Sacramento, on the East Coast, “where culture is.”
But her family’s finances, her mother’s hesitation and her own apathetic academic performance stand in the way of this. We follow Lady Bird during her last school year, a chaotic period of indecision between her friend groups, love interests, future plans and, mostly, whether she should appreciate what her family’s given her or renounce it as not good enough.
None of this sounds original on a surface level, yet nothing about “Lady Bird” feels stale. This is mostly due to writer/director Greta Gerwig, who has pointed out that it’s not just a story of Lady Bird growing up and graduating, but of her and her mom learning to reconcile with one another and let go. The film subtly weaves in their conflict with the protagonist’s other, seemingly more pressing issues, until it sneaks up on you and is, all at once, no longer subtle — as fighting with your parents often is, in reality. One scene in particular has stuck with me: while shopping for a prom dress, Lady Bird confronts her mother about the fact that while she loves her daughter, she doesn’t necessarily like her. Her mom doesn’t deny this.
“Lady Bird” is full of scenes like this, moments that pack surprise emotional punches. At some point, they’re not a surprise anymore, but that doesn’t make them any less devastating. Another favorite of mine is Lady Bird’s argument with her second love interest that her own problems are valid, even though there’s a war going on and everything (the film is set in the early 2000s).
Being a teenager sucks in general, but being a teenage girl is particularly difficult. You’re constantly told that you’re being overdramatic or hormonal, and aren’t allowed to be upset about things. You’re not even supposed to like things that are specifically marketed toward you, like pop music and rom-coms. But you know what? Getting cheated on by your high school boyfriend sucks. So does fighting with your parents and your friends and not knowing exactly who you are, much less what you want to do with the rest of your life.
“Lady Bird” doesn’t just acknowledge this; it embraces it. The film also, blessedly, embraces the concept of multi-dimensional female characters whose triumphs and struggles don’t revolve entirely around guys.
Much of this is thanks to Gerwig, who grew up attending Catholic school in Sacramento herself (though this is not an autobiography), and her screenplay. But the cast deserves praise, too — Ronan is quietly calculating and not-so-quietly furious with everyone around her, but still vulnerable when appropriate as Lady Bird. Metcalf, as her mother, strikes the perfect balance of impossibly neurotic and loving, and the rest of the cast is delightful as well — most notably Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend (and polar opposite) Julie, and Lucas Hedges as her brief love interest.
“Lady Bird” is so much more than the story of one particularly precocious high school student, but it is a coming-of-age story at its core, and a near-flawless one. It feels like the continuation of a trend sparked by “The Edge of Seventeen,” one that demands deeper and more authentic treatment of adolescent stories — especially female ones.
I hope that trend continues.