Over the years Greta Gerwig has shown herself to be much more than simply Noah Baumbach’s muse. That unfair moniker does a disservice to her talents and accomplishments as an actress and co-writer. With her new film “Lady Bird” she can now add director to that list.
Speaking of unfair, for some “Lady Bird” is burdened by expectations it can’t possible meet. Adoring fans have been passionately shouting its praises since it debuted in September at the Telluride Film Festival. “Lady Bird” made news headlines everywhere after Rotten Tomatoes declared it to be the “Best Reviewed Movie of All Time”. No pressure.
I’ve got good news for those who can go see “Lady Bird” openly and unaffected by the hype. It’s a good movie. It has some issues which I’ll get into, but ultimately it reveals yet another side of Gerwig, this time completely behind the camera. “Lady Bird” shows her to be much more attuned to the art of filmmaking than many first-time directors. She’s nimble and assured of what she wants from each scene and the film benefits from her understanding and confidence.
Gerwig began writing the script years ago (the full writing credit is hers) under the name “Mothers and Daughters”. The story’s framework is inspired by her own life growing up in Sacramento, attending a Catholic High School, and desperately longing to leave for the east coast. That is also the film’s main character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. She’s played by Saoirse Ronan, an Oscar nominee for “Brooklyn” and the perfect canvas for this movie both physically and expressively.
Gerwig’s coming-of-age story is unique in that its interests are internal and personal. Its narrative centerpiece isn’t the tired ‘girl likes boy, girl gets boy’ plot line. Similar to Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”, “Lady Bird” deals more with the experience of life and the various elements outside of this young girl’s control that shape her experience. Lady Bird navigates these sometimes turbulent waters while seeking out her own identity and trying to define “her best self”.
Ronan personifies Gerwig’s vision in what could be called a case study of adolescence (and not the Hollywood version). She effortlessly moves from fireball to introvert and few can sell insecurity quite like Ronan. It’s realized through her many interactions including with her best friend (played in just the right tone by Beanie Feldstein). Mostly it’s in the scenes with her family particularly her deeply caring but passive-aggressive mother. She’s played by Laurie Metcalf who delivers one of the year’s best supporting performances.
Ronan and Metcalf have a staggering chemistry and Gerwig utilizes it in every scene they share. You could say this is a mother who loves her daughter to a fault. She’s a remarkably true yet complex person who one character describes as “warm but also kinda scary”. Lady Bird rebels in her own quirky way but you also see the longing she has for her mother’s acceptance. Look no further than the movie’s superb opening scene. Gerwig’s dialogue for the two is so precise and their relationship forms the emotional backbone of the entire film.
As good as the writing often is there are a couple of characters who feel surprisingly conventional. One is the Danny character, well played by Lucas Hedges, but hampered by the tidy and predictable thread that runs throughout his story. Also there is Lady Bird’s father played by Tracy Letts. His daddy archetype has been seen from “Sixteen Candles” to “Brave”. Don’t get me wrong, Letts is fantastic and contributes to some of the film’s best scenes. But his father character feels too familiar and easy to read which is surprising in a movie rich with wonderfully-conceived characters.
In a fabulous interview with Rolling Stone, Gerwig said “I just don’t feel like I’ve seen very many movies about 17-year-old girls where the question is not, ‘Will she find the right guy’ or ‘Will he find her?’ The question should be: ‘Is she going to occupy her personhood?’ Because I think we’re very unused to seeing female characters, particularly young female characters, as people.” This approach from Gerwig is what makes “Lady Bird” such a good movie. Its 2002 post-911 setting feels relevant, its portrait of adolescence feels genuine and personal, and its pitch-perfect and bittersweet final shot lands just right. I can understand the adoration especially from women who see reflections of their own mother/daughter relationships. The film has that kind of powerful resonance, but also expect to enjoy some good laughs along the way.
VERDICT – 4 STARS
Right now, it’s currently in my top 10 films of the year so far as it is a really good film. I do hope Greta Gerwig gets a nomination for Best Original Screenplay while Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf get acting nods.
I can see that. It is really good and Gerwig’s confidence behind the camera is amazing. I can’t wait to see what she does next. Can you imagine her ‘only getting better’? And if Ronan and Metcalf aren’t nominated I’m not sure how the Oscars could possibly be taken seriously.
At least they’re not the Golden Globes.
Greta Gerwig was a big deal WAaaa-hay before Noah Baumbach ever set eyes on her mumble-core self. She’s going to be Oscar nominated. He just did an Adam Sandler comedy. For Netflix.
I think the first thing I saw Gerwig in was House of the Devil. Still need to catch up with some of her early stuff. One of my favorites of hers is still Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. And yes, Noah’s The Meyerowitz Stories. Still haven’t reviewed it because I can’t figure out where I land on it. Need to give it another look. What did you think about it?
The burden of expectations hits the nail on the head.
Yep. It’s pretty unfair but I wonder how many may have allowed their expectations to get away from them? On the other hand pretty much all of the responses have been universally positive.
Sounds good, man. I’m a huge fan of Gerwig. Ever since I saw her in Baumbach’s Greenberg, I was hooked. Great to hear her talents even extend to directing as well.
Yep, Gerwig is really good. Greenberg is a weird one. I was all over the place with that movie. But I loved Gerwig’s performance. It’s one of many movies that I feel deserves a second chance from me.
Yeah, it’s not Baumbach’s best but Gerwig was superb in it. That was the moment I took notice of her.
I loved Frances Ha. And honestly I’m a big fan of Mistress America, more so than many. Have you ever seen Damsels in Distress? It’s a Whit Steelman picture. I adore Gerwig in it.
There’s something about Greta Gerwig that really interests me. A certain Down to Earth demeanor that is breathtaking. And good to know she’s into directing too.
Exactly. She definitely has that demeanor. And get this – it also shows through in her directing.
Good for her. Love to see multi talented individuals.
Great review. This is one of my favorites of the year. I like Gerwig but I find her kind of one note as an actress, I love her so much more as a director.
That’s an interesting observation about her acting (and hard to really refute). I think it just registers so much with me. But just think, this is her FIRST film as director! Can you imagine when she grows even more as a filmmaker? So exciting.
You lucky bugger!! This isn’t playing down under until Feb/march.
This sounds like its worth the hype I have been reading about, and despite knowing NOTHING about Greta Gerwig, since Grand Budapest and especially Brooklyn I adore Saoirse Ronan so this is a must watch for me. Looking forward to it!
Oh man! Ronan is going to blow you away. She killed it in Brooklyn and does it again here. An absolute lock for an Oscar nomination. As for Feb/March, that just sucks!
yup, well, that is australia for ya. We seemed to have got killing of a deer before most folk, but nearly everything else is massively delayed. Phantom Thread? Feb 1 =/
Now I’m even more excited. Love Ronan. Bloody release dates!
The Phantom Thread has me nervous. One of most anticipated films and one I would love to see for my year-end list. It’s slated for a Christmas Day release but we’ll see how wide.
Yeah the plot isn’t convincing, but neither was a movie about oil. I’m just happy to see DDL again
Planning on catching this over the next week or so. Although I’m not always into Noah Baumbach’s work, I’ve always liked Gerwig’s performances in his films, and I’m glad to see her in the director’s chair.
Gerwig’s assured direction really stands out. And aside for my couple of quibbles, her writing is really impressive. I think you’ll like what you see.
Sounds a good film and some real names to look out for 🙂 Saoirse Ronan was great in Brooklyn so great to see her in great parts.
I loved Ronan in Brooklyn. This is right up there with that performance. It would be an absolute shame if she doesn’t at least get an Oscar nomination. I think she’s guaranteed at least that and maybe a win.
Great review 🙂 I agree that lady bird’s emotional connection with her mom formed the emotional backbone of the story. I just watched this today and it just had me in tears. I was surprised at how it emotional it made me, but given that I’m a teen going through the same things right now, it’s probably not that surprising. Loved Gerwig’s strong direction and the warm light that the film casts on it’s characters.
It’s pretty incredible, isn’t it? Especially for a first time director. Gerwig has such a good handle on what she’s wanting to do. Can’t wait to see what’s next for her.
Amazing review, thank you very much. I’m a huge fan of Greta Gerwig. She’s a very interesting character. I watched the trailer a few days ago and didn’t really know what to expect from the movie. Since you’re saying it’s a good one, I surely will give it a try.
If you like Gerwig you won’t be disappointed in Lady Bird. Her humor and sensibilities are all over the film. Hopefully you can see it soon.
Thats a fair assessment Keith; I thoroughly enjoyed it yet could not stretch to your rating because it relies totally on excellent acting and directing, while offering a rather weather-worn set of coming-of-age cliches. It is possible to go outside the box, as does Call Me By Your Name and others.
Thanks for the comments. I think what I loved it the authenticity of the central relationship between Lady Bird and her mother. I just loved it. Add in some good humor and some great performances and I was sold.
I absolutely loved this movie and the way Gerwig portrayed the mother daughter relationship is spot on.
Oh yes. The mother/daughter dynamic is so incredibly authentic.