TIFF17 REVIEW: Lady Bird [2017]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: NR | Runtime: 93 minutes | Release Date: November 10th, 2017 (USA)
Studio: A24
Director(s): Greta Gerwig
Writer(s): Greta Gerwig

“Love and attention”

After a string of critical hits hinging upon her trademarked quirk as self-absorbed twenty-somethings trying to cut a path in life, Greta Gerwig has decided to transpose that template onto a tale of teenage angst with her directorial debut Lady Bird. The first step was finding a kindred spirit in Saoirse Ronan to wear that eccentric brand of character ticks and insecurities masked by inflated self-confidence with expert precision. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn Ronan researched the role by watching Frances Ha, Mistress America, et al to truly embrace the heightened sense of personality Gerwig has written into this candid caricature of living with one foot in the present and another firmly planted in the future. Her Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson is ready to fly the coop.

Doing so won’t be easy, however. At least not how Lady Bird wants since college is very much the endgame for all involved. But while her mother (Laurie Metcalf‘s Marion) is quick to point out the fact they don’t have a lot of money and her grades aren’t that good, she refuses to be silenced. It’s this kind of psychological and emotional abuse—pejoratives thrown as though wake-up calls rather than just plain old mean barbs of vitriol and guilt—that’s pushed her towards wanting to leave Sacramento and get as far away from it as possible. Any good that she’s ever experienced has been tainted by the memories of her mother putting her down as a knee-jerk reaction where building her up should have resided.

It’s therefore time to step out of Marion’s shadow. Lady Bird has one year left of high school to do whatever she wants in preparation for the hard knock life she’ll lead in New York—if those financial aid letters her father (Tracy Letts‘ Larry) filled out behind his wife’s back pan out. She embraces her air for the theatrical by trying out for the school musical (of which she didn’t know existed). She looks for love in order to lose her virginity and thus become adult. And she begins to over-compensate against a past of not rocking the boat at home by searching for trouble, befriending new crowds, and tearing down the life she hopes to escape forever. In the process, though, she discovers what truly matters.

The trajectory that Gerwig has written for her titular character is wonderfully funny, resonate, and endearing despite its twee aesthetic and penchant for over-the-top representations of school life. While the latter can be distracting as additions for no reason other than easy laughs at the expense of the drama formed beneath, they do add a jolt of electricity able to keep you on your toes and moving forward. There’s a lot packed into the film’s 93-minute runtime, so much that some comes and goes without context or the space to digest it for interpretive meaning (the fate of Stephen McKinley Henderson‘s drama teacher for instance). The whole can feel scatter-brained as a result, a product of gags rather than character. But it lands as many as it misses.

What it gets right is the feeling of treading water with the potential to sink or swim. Lady Bird could have merely coasted along with best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), living life as they always have being two of the few kids at their private Catholic academy who aren’t from the rich part of town. But she gets the taste of high life. The chance to be like the girls she’s always hated for having what she didn’t arrives. It starts with new boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges), continues with new BFF in complacent and cool Jenna (Odeya Rush), and culminates in the lust of laconic bad boy (read hipster ego chic: teenage rock God and bookworm wrapped in an over-inflated sense of self-worth) Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).

The way she effortlessly latches onto things said and done despite having no clue what they are is universally relatable. The frustration towards her abrasive Mom, undying love for her sweetheart Dad, and playful yet hostile relationship with her brother (Jordan Rodrigues‘ Miguel) and his girlfriend (Marielle Scott‘s Shelly) also hit upon the ever-changing surface zeitgeist that’s remained unchanged beneath for generations. Lady Bird is a kind soul who means well until popularity and the satiation of desires overpower the urge to be who she really is. So she acts out at the expense of one of the Sisters (Lois Smith) and lies to her Mom in order to stave off any inevitable fallout until absolutely necessary. She’s still a malleable creature finding her way by making mistakes.

And while I think Gerwig may skew too far into caricature when it comes to many periphery players, she draws her leads with perfect three-dimensionality. Whether it’s Julie’s crush on her math teacher or Larry’s career prospects drying up as the world passes his good-natured, never cutthroat, depressive idealist by, the pervasive quirk will seamlessly fade into the background to augment every struggle. The problem, however, is that this shift between uproarious and heartfelt perpetually occurs almost every five minutes. I got whiplash experiencing it and eventually found myself unable to discern whether the current moment was being played for laughs or tears. As such, the heaviest drama can appear to be undercut in a bad way—the best example being Lady Bird’s relationship with Marion.

Whereas Gerwig depicts this volatile dynamic with authenticity, I couldn’t help wondering if she dismissed its inherent damage too flippantly. I’ve seen this type of relationship in action and know the complexities behind it go farther than a girl overreacting and fighting against authority while the mother is merely tapping into a compulsive disorder ravaged by personal insecurities she’s trying to verbally beat out of the daughter she assumes will have them too. Yes it’s cute to watch Ronan and Metcalf be at each other’s throats looking at clothes before suddenly turning amiable on a dime upon finding a choice they both love, but that punch line has consequences. The constant berating causes vicious psychological scarring that an “Oh, but Mom loves me” realization isn’t enough to heal.

What makes matters worse is Gerwig’s decision to continuously show Marion as maternal to everyone but her daughter. This alternate persona in public contrasting private is real and she and Metcalf portray it with every bit of scary mental instability it possesses. But doing so means the eventual confrontation (or lack thereof) leading towards its heartwarming denouement can’t be rendered so black and white or simplistic. Gerwig gets too much of the psychology correct to not follow through. The comedy and stylistic flourishes are enough to complement this intensity and temper its soul-crushing honesty. It’s not enough to replace it, though. So while I found Lady Bird to be an absolute delight on one hand, I can’t ignore its inability to lend its abuse the gravitas it deserves.

courtesy of TIFF

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