(2017—Director: Greta Gerwig)
(out of 5 stars)
“The only thing exciting about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome.” — Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) to her mother Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf)
“Don’t you think they’re the same thing? Love and attention?” — Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) to Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan)
Potential spoilers below
From 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause to last summer’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, high school cinema through the years has demonstrated the unmet expectations and emotional war zone of adolescence’s main arena. Most of this subgenre’s classics, however, tend to take place in the drab hallways and classrooms of the public high school system, with a high-brow preparatory institution (like 1989’s Dead Poets Society) appearing every now and then. With Lady Bird, actress-turned-writer-director Greta Gerwig (Francis Ha, Jackie) takes the camera to the private Catholic high school setting of her teenage years, where the public school-leaning student body tends to contrast with the stuffy faculty. Gerwig’s montage-like survey of how one angsty young woman survives her senior year bolsters an exceptional star performance by Saoirse Ronan as the titular character. Ronan, her fellow cast members, and Nick Houy’s fast-paced editing (for an indie feature, that is) keeps Gerwig’s story in step and drives it to a quiet and cathartic finish.
The 2002-2003 academic year at Sacramento’s all-girls Immaculate Heart High School is all that stands between college and the headstrong and assertive Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn), who insists that everyone call her “Lady Bird.” At home, Lady Bird butts heads with her nurse mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf, Toy Story trilogy, JFK). Behind her mother’s back, Lady Bird persuades her warm and recently-unemployed father Larry (Tracy Letts, The Big Short, the upcoming The Post) to fill out financial aid forms for out-of-state universities. Until her college dreams either come true (preferably on the east coast) or go bust, Lady Bird endures her final year by playing tug o’ war with her school’s constrained but amiable Catholic faculty and going back and forth on best friends and boyfriends.
While writer-director Ms. Gerwig conceived Lady Bird by drawing from her similar upbringing, Lady Bird would not come together without Saoirse Ronan’s impeccable and driving performance as the titular character. 2015’s Brooklyn showcased her at her most reserved and emotive, but Ms. Ronan fires on all cylinders in this story. She digs into the same disgruntlement and desperate yearning for fulfillment that characterized Hailee Steinfeld’s turn in last year’s The Edge of Seventeen (a film that, in a pinch, I favor over Lady Bird). Ms. Ronan advances with ease to a front-runner position in the Oscar race for Best Actress. Also rising to a front-runner position in the separate Oscar race for Best Supporting Actress is Laurie Metcalf, whose committed take on the overworked Marion McPherson brims with stress, frustration, and the fear of letting go.
As a film critic with a Catholic background, Lady Bird naturally compels me to address its Catholic elements. I was a second grader at a Catholic parochial school at the time setting of this film and it was around that time that my mother encouraged my family to start praying daily Rosary—a devotion my family continues to this day. The film’s uncomfortably-familiar setting truly hit me during the pro-life assembly scene (or “anti-abortion” assembly, to some viewers). Is that how pro-choice people (many of whom live and work in the entertainment industry) view genuine efforts by pro-life people to convince others that it is the murder of an unborn human being?
Sure, I laugh when Lady Bird (rightly) gets suspended for her comments during that scene, but I frown at the same time. I frown in recalling how my parochial school and high school never taught my classmates and me the full and authentic strength of catechesis in the Catholic faith. At the same time, I spent a decade of my life living the tragedy of watching my classmates fall away from the faith and seek fulfillment where they, at most, merely felt like they have found it. (Critic’s remark: It is most naïve and disheartening for the Catholic school system and Catholic clerics to think that assemblies for high schoolers or even junior high schoolers, like the one in the film, are how and when one learns of Catholicism’s more challenging doctrines.) I absorbed the one true faith outside, rather than inside, the classroom, yet I craved for a great Catholic education. I only received that at my sole serious college option towards the end of my high school days—the university for which I write this review, the reviews from this past year, and hopefully many more in the future.
Prior to watching Lady Bird, I did my best to suppress my awareness that it had surpassed Toy Story 2 as the film with the most reviews while maintaining a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That means that not a single one of the website’s hundreds of critics have scored Lady Bird less than 60%. Thankfully, I am not one to spoil that achievement [Update: and nor was I the one to do it]. Most mainstream viewers tend to shy away from, or doze off to, the relaxed pacing of most independent cinema fare. Lady Bird, with its extraordinary lead star, confident supporting cast, exceptional editing, and grounded and invisible writing and direction by Greta Gerwig, rises above the competition. Audiences will appreciate how Lady Bird powers through the highlights of a high school senior who is uncertain of her future, and the film will accordingly leave its audiences with a lasting tranquility.
(Parental Note: Lady Bird has been rated R by the MPAA “for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity, and teen partying.” It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for containing “very strong language” and “brief strong nudity” and rated L (Limited adult audience) by the Catholic News Service for containing “underage nonmarital sexual activity, mature themes, a same-sex kiss, a scene of marijuana use, and frequent coarse language.”)