Autobiography and Family Drama in “Lady Bird”

Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is a stirring coming-of-age story focusing on the relationship between a high school senior and her mother. Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, but insists that everyone call her “Lady Bird”. Her relationship with her mother, played by the excellent Laurie Metcalf, is fraught with complications – just like any mother-daughter relationship. Gerwig’s story has obvious autobiographical aspects, lending the film a refreshing matter-of-fact feeling. Lady Bird is a flawed protagonist, and her mother isn’t perfect either. Still, Lady Bird grows up a lot in the last year of high school, despite all the awkward romances and familial tension. Though detractors may classify Lady Bird as a film that doesn’t take many risks, its themes are timeless, perfectly executed, and packed with realism. Lady Bird is a resounding success from a first-time director, a seemingly-effortless bit of cinematic mastery.

At its heart, Lady Bird is a character study. Lady Bird herself is a wistful adolescent, eager to grow up, leave Sacramento, and experience a city with some culture. Her mother works tirelessly as a nurse, chastises Lady Bird for being ungrateful and not putting in much of an effort at school, and struggles to show her daughter how much she cares.

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Lady Bird attends the local Catholic Girls school, which is only made bearable by hanging out with her friend Julie and chasing some boys from a companion school. Her adventures are typical of a girl her age. She obsesses over a hot boy, tries to get in with the cool kids by lying about how much money her family has, and all of that teenage garbage. At times, she really isn’t a very nice person. It genuinely feels like Gerwig is looking back at herself at a younger age and being fiercely honest with her evaluation. That’s a universal feeling – we were all idiots in high school. Because it’s hard growing up.

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Her mom doesn’t necessarily make it any easier – but it hard to say that she is wrong. She may be a little too harsh with the way she delivers news to Lady Bird, or the way she disciplines her, but that’s a street that goes both ways. Lady Bird describes herself as being “from the wrong side of the tracks”, which her first boyfriend thought was a joke – until he literally crosses some train tracks to pick her up for Thanksgiving dinner. Metcalf’s face shows the depth of the wound – and also her scramble to conceal it.

Lady Bird and her mother have a peculiar relationship. It’s obvious that they love each other, but nothing is prim-and-proper. They each hurt the other with some careless words or actions. But then, they also have heartwarming discussions where they are honest and exposed. It is a wonderful interaction, a beautiful characterization of two headstrong women learning the best way to express their complex feelings for each other. This relationship is undoubtedly the heart of the film.

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And yet, there are many intriguing ideas in Lady Bird. Like many coming-of-age films, this one deals with burgeoning sexuality and love, but has some interesting wrinkles to it. The rest of the family dynamic produces some touching moments as well. Lady Bird and her father have an outstanding rapport that helps counteract the prickly relationship with her mother. Plus, Lady Bird’s brother and girlfriend add some value to a few key scenes. Overall, it’s a fleshed out family, and creates the perfect backdrop for Lady Bird’s growth.

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Because at the end of the day, Lady Bird really is about that peculiar form of love that can only come from family. Sacrifices and ungratefulness are beget dress-shopping and heart-to-hearts. Money struggles beget faux house-shopping and shoulders to cry on. There’s true love on display in Lady Bird despite all the anger, struggle, and difficulty. These can be hard things to understand for a teenager, and even harder lessons to convey on the big screen, but here it all comes together beautifully.

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Lady Bird is an impressive film, despite seeming fairly safe. Two pinnacle performances produce one of the most realistic, heart-felt, and bittersweet mother-daughter relationships in recent memory. The film shows a reverence for the vulnerability of the teenage approach to the world, where everything is of paramount importance and yet nothing seems to matter. Gerwig’s story is obviously personal, borrowing heavily from her own experiences and relationships, but this does not make her feat any less amazing. In her debut, she has crafted a coming-of-age masterpiece that is is pregnant with powerful themes with remaining comfortable with the ambiguity of becoming an adult.

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