Forget Lena Dunham. Greta Gerwig is the voice of my generation. Lady Bird is her directorial debut, and the first time she is credited as a solo writer, but clearly other films like Frances Ha and Mistress America wouldn’t have been so successful if not for her voice as well as her acting presence. Lady Bird is one of the best films of the year, as it is funny, heartbreaking, and honest in the way the best coming of age movies are. It also had me in tears for approximately 45 minutes or more.
Set in the 2002-03 school year, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) chafes at being a high school senior, trying to figure out where she will attend college, and attempts to figure out who she is while dealing with all of the relationships in her life. Her relationship with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) is too safe and too comfortable. The one with her mom (Laurie Metcalf) is constantly bubbling up with anger. She isn’t sure how to deal with her father’s (Tracy Letts) depression. Dating and sex are new experiences for her, but are also new things for her to be anxious about.
Teenage rebellion, yearning for adulthood, and the exploration of the self are all staples of this genre, but Gerwig’s vision makes a few modifications that have a profound impact on the feel of the film. For one, this is told from a female perspective. The 400 Blows, Rushmore (Lady Bird has a poster for the later in her bedroom), and plenty of other films bring are male-centric versions of this story. And while there have been more female-focused high school films in recent years (Easy A, Edge of Seventeen), the relationship between mother and daughter is not the focus.
Ronan and Metcalf portray characters that are so similar to each other, yet vibrate at slightly different frequencies brings to mind so many memories of the arguments I had with my own parents before I left for college. Both of them are strong-willed and strive for independence, yet are acutely aware that they are out of step with the mainstream without even trying to be. Marion gives her daughter straight talk constantly, whether it is about her clothes or the state of the family. It comes from a place of love, but it lands as not being supportive. In all of her relationships, from her family, to friends, teachers, and romantic partners, Lady Bird feels pressured to act in certain ways, and it feels like everyone wants to put her in a neat little box. And her small-scale rebellions are a way to fight that pressure.
Another layer of authenticity, especially as it resonated with me, was the time period. I’m a year younger than Lady Bird, but also went to a Catholic high school, graduating in the summer of 2004. There are a thousand little details that gave this film the deepest sense of verisimilitude I have ever personally experienced. The divide over the Dave Matthews Band, school assemblies about abortion, closeted theater kids, and post-9/11 anxiety/malaise are all things I acutely remember from my own high school experience. Gerwig is not giving us a nostalgic look back at these times. This isn’t her Dazed and Confused so much as she crafts these details to give Lady Bird’s life a sense of authenticity that might be lacking otherwise. This isn’t about reminiscing about what was cool for older Millennials and romanticizing that experience, but how it actually felt to be that age at that time.
For me, this was further deepened by showing Lady Bird and her family as distinctively lower middle class. They have enough money to live somewhat comfortably compared to people who are truly in poverty, but is a tenuous balance which must be maintained at all times and with great vigilance. Being a self-centered teenager (as all adolescents are), Lady Bird can understand this on an intellectual level, but not actually feel it. To me, it is a familiar feeling. My own upbringing resembled that situation, and until I became an adult myself, I never understood that my parents couldn’t just…try harder or something. Having internalized the “boot straps” mantra of the American Dream, I somehow felt that I–and my family too–deserved better than we had attained. During of the many bickering matches Lady Bird and her mother get into, her mom says “Well, we didn’t expect to stay in this house for 20 years.” I probably had the exact same fight with my own parents in our too-small rowhome in Northeast Philadelphia.
The relationship between these two characters forms the backbone of the film, and is rendered with honesty every single time. Most of the film is from Lady Bird’s perspective, but the film treats the entire cast of characters with respect and empathy. Each of them is in the midst of their own stories, and as a result Lady Bird feels like there are a dozen more movies happening in and around our main character. And the protagonist discovering that—coming to see beyond her own personal horizon—is one of the major areas of growth that she experiences over the course of this year of high school. Not that it makes it any easier. If anything, she longs to escape from Sacramento even more. College far away is an opportunity to start over, escape the past, become her true self.
Thus all of my tears. I wept for Lady Bird, her mother, her friend, and for myself. Seeing so much of my own experience rendered on screen was an overwhelming experience of catharsis like I have never before experienced. I believe that like Moonlight, the precision in the details within will transform these specific experiences into ones that resonate with many filmgoers. This is truly an unmissable masterpiece.
Lady Bird opens in Philly theaters today.
Author: Ryan Silberstein
Ryan spends his days at a company named one of the best to work for in the Philadelphia area, and his nights
as a mysterious caped vigilante saving his city from the disease that is crime watching movies. He lives on a diet consisting of film, comic books, experimental beer, black coffee, and those big metal historical markers around town. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.