Lady Bird is a gestalt film, in that it is greater than the sum of its parts. There is no stand out scene, moment of high drama, showy camera work or pivotal set piece, but at the end of it you find yourself missing its overall tone as if a friend has just left for overseas. Gerwig’s earlier film, the rather overlooked Mistress America, trod similar ground, and Lady Bird could be seen as a thematic prequel to it, where that addressed finding yourself in New York, this is about getting to New York.
This is the tale of Christine, who prefers to go by the name Lady Bird, who is attending a Catholic High school in Sacramento while desperate to get a scholarship in New York. Her father is recently unemployed and her mother a hard working nurse. It is the relationship with her mother that forms the crux of the plot, such as it is. She is often irascible and angry and their relationship constantly flips from argument to closeness and shared interest. She shows great warmth to others but struggles then to relax around her daughter. This sense of just getting it not quite right without it going all the way wrong will be familiar to many parents.
Aside from this we see Lady Bird have her first relationship, attempt to get in with the cool gang, apply for college and find resolution with her best friend. And if that sounds pretty mundane, that’s because it is. The film deliberately avoids typical coming of age melodrama, and cheap emotional appeals, it’s far removed from the schmaltz of A Fault in Their Stars, say. We witness the determined, strong willed, but equally unsure Lady Bird navigate all of the usual issues for any young person developing a life away from their parents. She does them no better or worse than we all do, but with better dialogue (“don’t be Republican”, “I wish I could live through something”).
Saoirse Ronan follows up on the beautiful Brooklyn with a performance that is authentic and relatable as the central character. She may be slightly too mature and have too much self possession at times to quite convince in the moments of social awkwardness, but her character is one that doesn’t fit neatly into any of the typical high school groupings. As well as the mother-daughter relationship, the film’s theme is this one of identity. One of the nuns at the school tells Lady Bird that she has a “performative streak” – but this is true of nearly everyone at that age. What Ronan captures perfectly is the trying on of different identities, before settling into one that feels halfway comfortable. Incidentally this is one of the issues with social media – teens need to be allowed to reinvent and forget past versions of themselves as part of this process, and those past versions can hang around forever online.
I was ready to find Lady Bird not as endearing as many critics have (I mean, it’s not horror is it?). Even while viewing, it initially just seemed vaguely pleasant, but it is rather like one of those spicy dishes that seems mild at first and then the sensation builds cumulatively until it really packs a punch. By the time it finished I wanted to stand and applaud.