Greta Gerwig’s much lauded second feature Lady Bird (Essential) is as good as you’ve heard and makes its way to select Chicagoland theaters this weekend. Having followed the filmmaker since her early films with Joe Swanberg, it’s something close to a revelation to see the actress grow from reticent performer to one of the most distinct voices in contemporary American cinema. Whether it's at the center or periphery of Noah Baumbach’s films or her collaborations with Mia Hansen-Løve, Pablo Larraín, Mike Mills, and Whit Stillman, Gerwig frequently leaves the most indelible impressions regardless of the size or scope of her role. With Lady Bird, her first directorial credit since 2008’s Nights and Weekends and her first feature screenplay credit since 2015’s Mistress America, it’s Gerwig’s unique cadence and distinct sense of humor that provides one of the most keenly realized and recognizable films about adolescence in recent memory.
An unexpected and surreal quality to Lady Bird is that it invited me to return to my high school years with a kind of vividness I haven’t experienced before. I’m a little over a decade removed from my high school experience, which makes me something close to the ideal audience for the film’s temporal setting: it’s 2002 and Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is entering her senior year of high school. We first see her in the car with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), the two having prospected colleges and now sobbing after completing an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath. Here, Gerwig establishes the dichotomy between Lady Bird’s impatience and her mother’s tough love, where the two bicker in the familiar way a concerned parent reprimands their child for impractical ambitions. In one of the film’s most comical moments, Lady Bird, unable to absorb her mother’s continued criticisms, hurls herself out of a moving car. We see Lady Bird again in her Catholic school uniform brandishing a cast with “Fuck you mom” scrawled along the edge. That cuts deep, and as we see throughout the film, those lesions aren’t quick to heal.
Lady Bird becomes a compelling house of mirrors, where mother and daughter are combative at the start, but share and handle experiences in intriguingly similar ways. This is best exemplified in how Gerwig and editor Nick Houy piece together two different but thematically similar sequences involving Lady Bird and Marion. In the first scene, Lady Bird is confronted by her ex-boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges). She’s upset after having been misled about his sexuality. But their argument doesn’t last long, as Lady Bird consoles her confused and worried ex, left to keep a secret and function as a source of comfort. The moment is immediately followed by Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson) at the hospital where Marion works. Earlier in the film a student discusses with Lady Bird rumors involving Leviatch’s deceased son (an apparent suicide drug overdose) and while not explicitly confirmed, one gathers that it’s the ensuing grief that has left the Father to seek medical guidance. It’s Marion that offers a consolatory ear, inquiring about Leviatch’s support system (tellingly, the man of the cloth does not have one). Before the scene concludes, Leviatch pleads with Marion not to tell her daughter about their conversation. She complies and the moment is never referred to again.
Those scenes, all contained to roughly five minutes of Lady Bird, tell a lot about what the film is and how it’s about it. We discover the loyalties of these two characters, Lady Bird and Marion, along with the emotional burdens they carry between themselves. We learn about the way words travel and the impressions they leave on people. Early in the film, we find a scene where Marion is hurt by a comment she heard from Danny about Lady Bird “living on the wrong side of the tracks”. She brings up the comment to Lady Bird months after it was uttered, suggesting how such comments fester and agonize. And perhaps most importantly, the brief two scenes suggest the similarities between these two characters, characters that are so perpetually at odds with one another yet warm even at their most confrontational.
This is a film that mirrored my own experiences; I saw a lot of myself in the film’s array of characters and in Lady Bird. I remember those labored conversations with my parents about colleges, the fecklessness of continuing to go to class in my senior year, relying on my female friends for solace and peace, and the swooning irrational tenderness of falling for someone. I can remember my strained, combative relationship with my mother and that feeling of disconnect when my parents weren’t around anymore. I can recall that almost cosmic feeling of smallness on those days leading up to college. But then there are the qualities that you recognize after the fact: I was a high school freshman in 2002 and distinctly recall the bludgeoning news reports of invading a foreign country, the facile conversations with other freshman about the war, and the malaise of an immediate post-9/11 world. Yes, Gerwig flatters you with these totems of recognition, but they’re all so richly realized and convincing. Nothing about it seems false or misguided. It’s that sense of authenticity that goes beyond superficial duplication and instead gets it right on a molecular level. Lady Bird is a great film, but it’s also particularly important one to me in the same way Joel and Ethan Coen’s Inside Llewyn Davis and Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson are important. I’m not one of spiritual inclinations, but a film like Lady Bird gets really close to getting to the heart of things. It’s soulful, in a most literal and lyrical sense.