By Marina Brafa
A lot of praise was showered on Lady Bird when it came out in the U.S. last year. It won four Golden Globe Awards in main categories and received five Oscar nominations in 2018 for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress. Greta Gerwig is the fifth woman in Oscar history to receive a nomination for Best Director. Unfortunately she went home empty handed at the Oscars. But whether or not the awards mean anything, Lady Bird still deserves praise, as it is a gorgeous film that depicts the coming of age of a young woman in a sober, thoughtful manner. Moreover, the fact that the film was made by a talented female director-screenwriter and includes a plot driven by realistic female characters makes it stand out among similar films.
There are two points in particular which I think are crucial for the success of this low-budget movie at the box office. First, the universal plot. One can state in one sentence what the movie is about: A coming-of-age story of a teenage girl that grows up in an average American city in a middle-class family with financial issues. Sound familiar? Correct. There is a whole genre that covers these kinds of stories and audiences can therefore easily relate to the film. However, what makes Lady Bird stand out is Greta Gerwig’s original, empathetic script. The film’s protagonist, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), is an almost 18-year old growing up in not-so-exciting Sacramento. She is unpleasant and rebellious, especially toward her mother. She re-names herself “Lady Bird” and tries to reach her dreams: losing her virginity and attending an ivy league college, even though her family is living on a tight budget because her father recently lost his job. On her journey, Christine/Lady Bird is nasty and loving, determined and insecure all at the same time. To create a character that carries all these features, and thus comes close to the complexity of real life, is not an easy task to accomplish. But Gerwig’s script does a good job of layering and interweaving these fibers of life into her characters and their interpersonal relationships. There are no crazy twists, no bloody messes and certainly no action-laden sequences, but rather subtle personal development that makes the story seem authentic and relatable.
Second, the cast is outstanding. The characters run the risk of seeming flat precisely because of their complexity and the difficulty for actors to convey emotions that differ from person to person. But because the plot itself is not filled with artificial and implausible turns, it depends on and is heavily driven by the artists’ performances. Luckily, the cast of Lady Bird captures the emotions perfectly. It does not come as a surprise that two of the main actresses were nominated for an Academy Award for their acting. Saoirse Ronan as Christine the moody teenager and Laurie Metcalf as the overbearing Marion are a perfectly mismatched mother-daughter duo who give their characters life. They are accompanied by a group of likewise gifted actors and actresses like Beanie Feldstein as Christine’s friend Julie and Timothée Chalamet who plays one of Christine’s love interests (coincidentally he appears in another critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning movie Call Me by Your Name (2017, Luca Guadagnino), and was nominated for Best Actor). These so-called supporting actors are “supporting” in the best way: they counterbalance the dominant figures of Christine and her mother. Like mirrors that surround Christine and Marion, the other cast members reflect various aspects of the main characters and show how multifaceted these two women are. Sure, the supporting roles could be more fully developed, but this is not the aim of the movie. It centers on Christine and her relationships and avoids losing itself in elaborate psychological profiles that would drown the movie and turn the comprehensible, tragicomic coming-of-age film into a pretentious, lifeless character study.
Lady Bird is about human beings in all their positive and negative moments and screenwriter Greta Gerwig was able to capture them. In many articles and reviews she has been applauded for this element of the movie. Her role as director, however, has not been emphasized much, despite her Oscar nomination for Best Director. Maybe this is because the camera work is impressive in a subtle, diffident manner. Although we have a close look at family life and follow Christine throughout the film, the camera manages to stay unobtrusive as if it just happens to be observing the situation in which it finds the main characters. Many scenes unfold in tableau-like compositions under the bright Californian sun, the latter highlighting Christine’s outfit choices ranging from colorful to dark (depending on her mood). In the end, Christine/Lady Bird moves to New York where we witness her getting drunk and then hospitalized for her wild night out. So far, so normal for an 18-year-old freshman.
While that might seem anticlimactic, it is more important what happens on a symbolic level – “Lady Bird” changes her name back to Christine McPherson and calls her family back home. The self-proclaimed “Lady Bird” takes off, faces her struggles, undergoes a transformation and gets her broken wings fixed again. She lands back on earth and can now find her way with both feet firmly on the ground. What a happy ending.
Lady Bird was released in the U.S. on November 3, 2017 and in Germany on April 19, 2018.