Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 3, 2018)
Despite a title that implies it’ll offer a biography of Lyndon Johnson’s wife, 2017’s Lady Bird delivers a “coming of age” tale. Set in 2002, we meet Christine ”Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a 17-year-old high school senior at a Catholic school.
Part of a working class family, Lady Bird longs for bigger/better things than what she can experience in Sacramento. We follow her final year of high school and all the developments that period brings.
I admit that acts as a pretty vague plot synopsis, but a character piece like Lady Bird doesn’t really emphasis story elements. A movie such as this prefers to explore its people and relationships more than particular narrative beats.
After an acting career as an “indie darling”, Lady Bird pushes Greta Gerwig behind the camera with massive critical success. Lady Bird doesn’t offer her debut as writer/director, as she co-wrote/co-directed 2008’s Nights and Weekends, but that flick didn’t make much of a dent.
Apparently Nights ran on all of one screen and it earned a whopping $5430 total. With a US gross of $48 million, Lady Bird didn’t exactly dominate the multiplexes, but it did pretty well for a low-budget character flick.
Clearly the film’s awards success helped, as Lady Bird nabbed five Oscar nominations. That included nods for Best Picture and for
Gerwig as both writer and director.
On the surface, Gerwig seems to bite off more than she can chew, as Lady Bird covers a wide swath of topics. It digs into the lead’s romances, college issues, financial concerns and friendship dilemmas as well as family problems.
Any one of those could’ve occupied an entire film on its own, so the inclusion of so many domains created concern. This became exacerbated by the movie’s brevity, as it felt like Gerwig might have packed too much into a 93-minute tale.
And she probably did, as Lady Bird might work a smidgen better if it didn’t cover so much territory. Consider that to be a small complaint, though, as the film goes through the subjects in such a compelling manner that I can forgive its excesses.
Honestly, Lady Bird really should turn into a disaster. Not only does it go through way too many subjects for its theoretical own good, but also it lacks stylistic coherence. One minute the film seems to want to become a broad comedy, while the next it lurches into dramatic territory.
Miraculously, Gerwig manages to hold the beast together and deliver a movie that seems surprisingly rich and insightful. Even when it should falter, it works.
Take the scene in which the high school’s football coach takes over a musical production. Lady Bird suddenly threatens to turn into a Chris Farley Saturday Night Live sketch but somewhat it doesn’t derail and the comedy fits.
I think a lot of the success comes from the movie’s inherent honesty. Gerwig shoves in an awful lot of topics, but she treats them in a pretty truthful manner, and even though she telegraphs too many character revelations, the film still keeps on track and feels real.
To be sure, the actors help. Ronan and Laurie Metcalf – as Lady Bird’s mom Marion – get characters that easily could’ve become intensely unlikable. Lady Bird could turn into an insufferable brat, while Marion treats her daughter in such borderline cruel ways that we should hate her.
Neither potential flaw emerges, though, as the actors give the roles the necessary humanity. Even when they veer into territory that should make them off-putting, the performers stay engaging and sympathetic, factors that give the movie emotional heft.
We also get a terrific supporting cast, all of whom do well. In particular, Tracy Letts – as Lady Bird’s dad Larry – deserves plaudits for his work in a relatively small and semi-thankless role.
Given Marion’s fairly domineering ways, Larry easily could’ve become the caricature of the hen-pecked husband, but Letts offers a quiet strength and warmth that allows him to avoid cartoony tendencies. Ronan and Metcalf got Oscar nominations – both deserved, but I think their plaudits meant Letts unfairly got lost in the shuffle, as he offers arguably the best performance of the lot.
I admit I didn’t expect much from Lady Bird, as I figured its membership in the well-worn “coming of age” genre meant it wouldn’t have much to say. However, the movie delivers a witty, engaging drama that manages to overcome a slew of potential problems to become a thoroughly enjoyable experience.