Around two-thirds of the way through Greta Gerwig’s assured, multi-awards nominated film, its lead character Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is in the midst of trying on dresses for the high school prom when she asks her mum, “Do you like me?”
Her mum struggles to give her a straight yes for an answer and I felt the same way. Do I like this character? Do I feel any sort of sympathy for her plight and her problems? Like her mum, I’m struggling to give a straight yes. And without feeling anything for the main character, it’s difficult to get carried away.
Set in Oakland, California’s leafy capital, in 2002, Gerwig’s beautifully shot film tracks the growing pains of its titular teenager Christine McPherson who has renamed herself Lady Bird. because she’s different, quirky, whatever.
She’s from a not-very-well-off family dominated by her mum who, as Lady Bird’s brother’s girlfriend says, is full of love – but she’s also full of bitterness and criticism as far as Lady Bird is concerned. The teen attends a Catholic school where her best friend is maths nerd Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and she sees herself going to a college which will allow her creative side to flourish – she has vague ideas about making it to the East Coast and being a writer. Unfortunately her grades are middling and her parents aren’t wealthy enough to pay for the kind of college she wants to go to.
Meanwhile, Lady Bird is going through all the usual teen stuff – boyfriends, rebellion, trying to be one of the cool kids – with the tension between her and her mum growing ever worse.
Lady Bird is the kind of low-key, indie coming-of-age film that doesn’t usually get the kind of mainstream attention and adulation that’s come its way – and it’s a bit perplexing to understand quite why that’s happening. It’s an entertaining and often funny study of those tricky high school years but it doesn’t feel particularly original or insightful. We’ve been here plenty of times before and although Lady Bird has some nicely drawn characters, it doesn’t feel particularly diverting or memorable.
Perhaps in an era where cinema screens are dominated by effects-heavy blockbusters it’s the downbeat, character-driven approach that is what’s driving all the praise and affection for Lady Bird. Or maybe it just chimes with the times we live in and speaks to those who haven’t identified with most of what they’ve seen on screen recently. I’m not sure this will go down as a classic when it’s looked back on but there’s no doubt it’s captured something in the air right now.
What is really good about Lady Bird is its attention to a range of interesting and diverse characters. The relationship between Lady Bird and her mum Marion is what the film hinges on, and Ronan and Metcalf play this with great attention to the nuance and changeability that comes with the volatility of their characters. The film really comes alive when they’re sparring and bickering, but there’s a sense of drift when we’re left alone with Lady Bird and her self-centred adventures.