“I remember seeing Boyhood and thinking: what’s this but for a girl?” said Greta Gerwig when speaking about her new movie, Lady Bird with the Financial Times last week. Her directorial debut has been scooping up accolades and nominations left, right and centre since hitting the big screen in the US last November, and after finally seeing the movie for myself on Wednesday, it’s really not hard to see why.
Set in Gerwig’s hometown of Sacramento, California, the story follows Saoirse Ronan’s Christine, a.k.a. “Lady Bird”, a pale, outspoken, misunderstood teenage girl with pink hair and a complex love-hate relationship with her mother, played by the brilliant Laurie Metcalf.
When I told a friend I’d been to see this film and she asked me what it was about, I wasn’t really sure how to describe it to her. Lady Bird is a story that fits neatly within the classic “coming of age” genre, and Lady Bird’s (the character) journey to adulthood does feature those traditional elements of friendship, romance, sex, identity, being different, being weird… and yet there’s still so much more to Gerwig’s screenplay than meets the eye.
Unlike most movies about growing up, in which the lead actors appear to have perfect skin and look like they’re about 29 years old, Lady Bird feels real. Gerwig even insisted that Ronan’s character not wear make-up so she wouldn’t cover up any blemishes or acne, and asked her to dye her hair herself because she “thought it would be right for the character that there be this badly done loudness about her. Saoirse did it in her hotel sink and it just looked perfectly dreadful.”
But where the authenticity really shines through is the way Lady Bird interacts with the people around her, particularly her mother. Their conflicted, spectacularly unpredictable relationship is laid bare merely minutes into film, and some of the best bits of the movie come from the snappy, passive-aggressive exchanges between Ronan and Metcalf. It’s that lack of synchronisation – that feeling of “you don’t understand me and what I’m going through” – that’s kind of cliche but also brilliantly familiar if you’re a mother or a daughter (or both). They clearly love each other an enormous amount, but the fact they constantly clash just demonstrates how unwilling they are to see things from the other person’s perspective.
As for her relationship with Julie (played by Beanie Feldstein), a sweet, overweight girl with a crush on her maths teacher, this is an example of female friendship not shown often enough in cinema – it’s a friendship that feels genuine, and you really believe in those moments when they’re bent-double laughing, not able to hold back the tears (talking about boys while snacking on communion wafers is a particular highlight).
Julie also isn’t just the side-kick who exists only to “serve the main character,” says Gerwig. She has just as much depth as Lady Bird, with some even going as far to say that Julie is the “scene stealer” of the film. In fact, “if you followed any single character, they would have their own movie,” Gerwig adds. She even encouraged each actor to make up secrets about their character and not tell her what they were.
The family’s financial struggles make for another interesting subplot, a topic not often explored in classic American coming-of-age stories. Lady Bird jokes that she’s “from the wrong side of the tracks”, but there’s something also quite heart-breaking about this storyline – the way Metcalf’s character Marion looks at her husband Larry (Tracy Letts) as they work out just how they’re going to get by with what money they have, and how Marion tells her daughter that “Dad’s been struggling with depression for years” and Lady Bird replies, “I didn’t know.”
It’s a rare thing that we find ourselves invested in more than just the problems of the protagonist – we sort of want everyone to get their happy ending. This isn’t really an ensemble cast, but the level of depth associated with each character almost makes it feel like it should be. We probably know just as much about Lady Bird’s parents, her brother, her friends and her “lovers” as we do about Lady Bird, despite the fact Ronan’s character undoubtedly spends more time on screen than anyone else. And I’d say that’s a real achievement.
This year’s Academy Awards take place on Sunday 4th March, and Lady Bird is up for an impressive five awards, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress in a Leading Role (Saoirse Ronan), Actress in a Supporting Role (Laurie Metcalf), and Best Director (Greta Gerwig). Here’s hoping it gets something, because oh boy, does it deserve it.
Watch the trailer for Lady Bird here: