REVIEW – ‘Lady Bird’

The cinematic trials and tribulations of the long-suffering teenage girl are nothing new. From Pretty in Pink to The Breakfast Club, and Clueless to Mean Girls, we’ve seen the perils of the adolescent female portrayed in hundreds of varying ways. Most tend to sensationalise and exaggerate the female experience, which can be fun, but ultimately unrelatable. That’s why it’s such a genuine treat to find a film like Lady Bird, which shines so brightly thanks to its writer/director Greta Gerwig injecting so much of her own teenage experience into her terrific screenplay and stellar direction. What we’re blessed with is a profoundly personal film with a remarkable and award-worthy leading lady at its helm.

Set in 2002 (“The only thing exciting about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome,” our heroine hilariously bemoans) in Sacramento, California, Lady Bird follows the spunky, opinionated Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (the glorious Saoirse Ronan) over the course of her final year at a somewhat-strict Catholic school. Desperate to escape the drudgery of her home town, Lady Bird dreams of escaping to a liberal East Coast arts college, despite her family’s financial hardships.

That family is led by tough matriarch, Marion (an Oscar-worthy Laurie Metcalf), who constantly clashes with her daughter over, well, everything. Lady Bird, with her penchant for passive-aggressive barbs, and Marion, with her “my way or the highway” attitude, are decidedly similar, but neither will ever admit it. While her mother presses Lady Bird to set her sights on a college future more financially practical, and more in line with her academic skills, her father, Larry (Tracy Letts, in a touching, thankless turn), secretly tries to find a path for his daughter to achieve her dream.

As she bides her time and plans her escape to college, Lady Bird must navigate the complicated and dramatic world that is your last days of high school. She’s got her best friend Julie (a scene-stealing Beanie Feldstein) to keep her sane, with the pair focusing on anything but studying, including gossiping about boys and stealing communion wafers to munch on as a sneaky snack. And those boys provide more drama than anything else in Lady Bird’s life, as she begins two disastrous relationships with the kind-hearted Danny (Lucas Hedges) and mysterious and aloof musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet, in a polar-opposite role to his work in Call Me By Your Name).

But when Larry loses his job, and Lady Bird’s vision of dashing off to New York becomes that much more difficult, the arguments between mother and daughter reach a fever-pitch. Both stubbornly refuse to back down in the fight over what’s best for Lady Bird and her future, with their strong personalities clashing at every turn. It becomes an all-out battle between two fierce and determined women, and only one will ultimately get their way.

Despite her young-age, the sublime Saoirse Ronan has been dazzling us for over a decade now. She once again proves why she’s perhaps the best and brightest young actress in the business. But despite her impeccable career, she outdoes herself here, bringing a sense of authenticity and credibility like never before, and not just with her pitch-perfect American accent. Her performance is genuine and honest, and despite Lady Bird’s bratty-at-times attitude, including a nasty habit of deception, you can’t help but cheer for her.

That’s the beauty of Ronan’s work here. Tasked to a lesser actress, Lady Bird could be downright awful to watch, coming across ungrateful, unkind, and selfish. But as Ronan unveils her layered performance, she invites us to see the character’s warmth and heart, and that’s her true masterstroke here. Lady Bird is so flawed and imperfect, like only a real teenage girl can be, and it’s a truly captivating performance that could well score Ronan her first Oscar. And I say “first” because there will be more. With three nominations by age 23, Ronan could genuinely be our new Meryl Streep.

With 2015’s masterpiece Brooklyn, Ronan proved she could deftly carry a film, and, in many ways, she’s required to again in Lady Bird. Gerwig’s inspired dialogue requires an actress who can expertly land acidic line after acidic line, and Ronan never falters. She handles the script perfectly, with such feisty and vigourous energy. As a performer, she has perfect comedic timing, yet, as we’ve already seen, can easily handle the drama as well. It’s a performance which demands a beautiful mix of light and shade. In Ronan’s capable hands, the result is downright breathtaking.

Making Lady Bird soar even higher is one of the most underrated actress of our time (let’s be honest – she was the best thing about Roseanne and Scream 2). Laurie Metcalf delivers her best performance in years, and she knows it. She takes this role with both hands, and never looks back. As Marion, she’s both wildly hilarious and crushingly devastating, playing the kind of mother we somehow both wish we had and are kinda glad we didn’t.

She’s one tough cookie who is constantly hard on her daughter, often frustratingly overly-critical of her every move. But in Metcalf’s hands, it’s always filled with obvious love and a deep caring for her daughter. Lady Bird may not see it, but Metcalf lets us in on her true motivation, and her performance is a revelation. She is equally Oscar-worthy, and it’s hard to see anyone beating her. When Ronan and Metcalf combine, their scenes are utterly electric, particularly the film’s stellar opening scene, as they trade quips with such perfect timing and deft precision. It’s one of the greatest mother-daughter performances there has ever been, and one which, in the end, will touch your very soul.

Semi-autobiographical in nature (she herself grew up in Sacramento with a domineering mother), Gerwig’s screenplay is an absolute dream. It’s heartfelt, personal, and brutally honest, overflowing with phenomenal scenes and relatable moments. Her narrative will take you right back to the frustrations and awkwardness of your teen years, particularly your interactions with your parents. It’s clear Gerwig now holds a more sympathetic and understanding view of the parental role in her upbringing, and she’s written such a beautiful film to acknowledge the often thankless role that is the mother. After this film, you will likely want to call your Mum and apologise for being such an unappreciative pain as a teenager.

As director, Gerwig equally proves to be a revelation, crafting something seemingly simple and subtle yet still tremendously brilliant. The film is elevated by Sam Levy’s vivid cinematography and Jon Brion’s charming score, plus a stack of “period” tracks, such as Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” and Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me,” mixed in for good measure. The attention to detail (the chunky flip-phones, a “Never Forget” 9/11 poster on a wall, the now-huge sized Dell desktop computer) from production designer Chris Jones is flawless, creating a perfect snapshot of early-millennium life. It’s a technical aspect unlikely to reap awards this season, but it should. It’s as intricate and important as the production design of any grand, flashy period piece, and the film is better for it.

If The Florida Project was the most genuine and honest depiction of childhood this year, Lady Bird is the most genuine and honest depiction of adolescence, particularly that of the female experience. Gerwig has crafted a deeply personal film that’s funny, entertaining, engaging, and, ultimately, incredibly moving. It’s sincere without ever feeling contrite, intelligent without every being condescending, and familiar but somehow entirely fresh and unique.

Cemented by the glorious lead performance of Ronan, and a sensational supporting cast, lead by Metcalf, Lady Bird is a film you will want to watch again and again. It is an absolute triumph and one of the best films of the year that’s impossible not to love.

★★★★★

Lady Bird will open in cinemas Australia-wide on February 15.

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