Warning: Review Contains Spoilers
The thing about coming of age movies is that they’re written by people who have already come of age looking back at their youths. This means that they’re generally set in the past, often about ten or twenty years ago, which just so happens to be the peak period for an entire generation’s nostalgia interest. That’s why George Lucas set American Graffiti in the early 60s, why Richard Linklater set Dazed and Confused in the late 70s, why Noah Baumbach set The Squid and the Whale in the 80s, and why… I actually can’t think of too many set in the 90s (The Wackness, I guess) but you get the point. Well, after years and years of watching other people’s memories of bygone eras things have finally come around: I’m finally old enough that they’re making nostalgic coming of age movies about the era when I was actually in high school. The new film Lady Bird, directed by 34 year old Greta Gerwig, is about the high school experience of someone from the class of 2003 and while that is still technically about three years older than me (class of 2006) it’s still basically the era I knew compete with watching news about the Iraq War, seeing people talk on non-ubiquitous flip phones, and hearing Justin Timberlake songs get played at parties. It’s kind of freaking me out, but I won’t hold that against the movie, which is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed.
The film is set in 2002 and 2003 and takes place over the course of the senior year of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who insists on going by the self-applied nickname “Lady Bird” for some teenagery reason. Lady Bird lives in Sacramento, a city she does not have much appreciation for, and goes to a catholic school despite her parents only barely being able to afford it. Lady Bird is a character who could be called “quirky” but she’s not quirky in an unbelievable indie-movie sort of way, she’s more quirky in the way that brainy high school students actually behave when trying to find their own identity. She wears red hair dye and occasionally rebels (though not too wildly) against the rigidity of the nuns and priests who run her school. Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf ) can be a bit much to handle and her father Larry (Tracy Letts) often struggles financially and otherwise while acting as something of a “good guy” when dealing with Lady Bird.
Lady Bird is kind of a hard movie to talk about. Many of its qualities are readily apparent but sound kind of mundane if not cliché when their described on the page. Much of its appeal comes down to little details that make it feel very true to life and just generally make its central character a bit more… I don’t know that lovable is the word (at the end of the day she is still a dumb teenager) but certainly more fully realized and human. Saoirse Ronan’s performance is one of the movie’s biggest assets. I had assumed that Ronan was done playing teenagers after having played someone in their early twenties or thereabouts in Brooklyn but she seems able to slide right back into playing an 18 year old despite being 23. Lady Bird, the character, is in some ways less a real person than the self-image that people construct of a sort of ideal of what they would have been in high school if they could live it all over again. Fun and arty, cool but not necessarily part of the unpleasant “in-crowd” for the most part, extremely self-confident and rebellious but not is a way that’s really dangerous. Much of the film focuses on Lady Bird going through typical teenage stuff over the course of her senior year like making new friends and going through boyfriends, but what the movie ultimately comes down to is her relationship with her parents and especially her mother.
This is actually where the film both gets interesting and also kind of falls short for me. It’s not unusual for these coming of age films to feature conflicts between teenagers and their parents but usually the films implicitly side with the parents and view the teenager’s rage against them to be the result of a youthful failure to appreciate legitimate parental concerns, and if they don’t it’s because the parents are straight up abusive or something. Here Lady Bird’s mother doesn’t exactly seem like a terrible person but she does kind of suck. She’s someone who constantly nagging her daughter over goofy little things like how quickly she washes her school uniforms while being seemingly uninterested in helping her with the bigger problems in her life. The mother’s key flaw seems to be the gigantic chip she has on her shoulder about money and class. She’s constantly going on about how the family is “poor” even though they really only appear to be, at worst, lower middle class and this also leads her to have an incredibly snobby attitude about public schools and anyone who’s actually poor. This manifests itself in its worst way when she actively discourages her daughter in her ambitions and begins acting like a petulant child herself when Lady Bird ends up surpassing expectations.
The fact that I was actually on the side of the rebellious teenager by the end of the film is a big part of why the film’s ending didn’t quite work for me. In some ways I feel like the movie should have just ended with Lady Bird getting on the airplane and left the conflict between her and her mother as this messy thing that simply isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon and will probably linger with the characters for years. On some levels I do think Gerwig wanted that but for whatever reason she added on this little post false-ending coda about her first few days in college leading up to an attempt at reconciliation that frankly felt unearned. If anything it was the mother who owed the daughter an apology and the notion of a college student who frankly has nothing to apologize for having some epiphany to be the bigger person and end the conflict just because she had a wild night or two. Whether or not the movie sticks the landing though, this is plainly the best look at adolescence since Linklater’s Boyhood and is in many ways a joy to watch.