Feels on Reels: Lady Bird

By: Jenna Gundersen 

I showed up to Lady Bird expecting a meaty, arthouse tearjerker.  I’d done my cinematic Sparknoting—I’d seen the 100% Rotten Tomatoes score and the poster with Saoirse’s grave profile.  But Lady Bird flipped and exceeded my expectations. In Lady Bird, writer/director Greta Gerwig doesn’t so much subvert the “coming of age” genre as tip her hat to it and dance entropically forward.  Her greatest gift is giving us permission to laugh at scenes which, in the hands of a different director, would have us rolling our eyes or sobbing.  True, the narrative is sometimes dark, but it’s never heavy.  We feel for the characters, but we don’t pine for them.  Poignant moments collide with ones that undercut the poignancy.  It’s this haphazard flip of a switch that keeps Lady Bird grounded in reality.    Lady Bird follows high school senior Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, as she takes steps toward independence.  The biggest roadblock is her mother, Marion: a no-frills, stubborn, and unapologetically blunt woman.  The mirroring between Saoirse and her onscreen mom, Laurie Metcalf, is brilliant: Saoirse brings wounded spunk and Laurie parries with taxed hardness.  In an early scene, LB and Marion drive down a Sacramento highway listening to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath.  One minute they’re sobbing, the next they’re sparring; it’s flippant and intimate in the way only family relationships can be.  The scene closes with LB hurling a death glare and jumping out of the car.  We get a close-up on Marion’s shocked, screaming face before quick-cutting to LB with a hot pink cast on her arm that has a not-so-nice message to her mom graffitied on it.  Structuring scenes like this means we’re not allowed to dwell on what’s happening: we barrel ahead with the same capriciousness as an angsty adolescent.  It’s genius. One reality about growing up is experiencing how certain memories stick with you, but the way you think and feel about them evolves over time—this resonance happens beautifully in Lady Bird.  LB’s relationship to the song “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band is perhaps the strongest example.  At first, LB cries/sings along to the song after realizing a romance will never be what she thought it could be.  Later, the song comes on the radio when LB rides to prom with the popular crowd, which includes her bookish, antiestablishment prom date (think: James Franco + Edgar Allan Poe).  Here, the song is the extra push LB needs to realize these are not the people she wants to be around.  Initially heartbreak, then independence—as the associations build, the song becomes more meaningful to both LB and the audience.  Many other resonances happen throughout the film, rooting LB’s character and solidifying the narrative. In interviews about the film, Gerwig has talked about how one person’s coming of age is another’s letting go.  LB’s decision to go to college far from home is important because it shows us her growth, but also for how it depicts Marion’s resistance to letting her go.  Marion’s struggle is clearest at the end of the film, when she refuses to walk LB into the airport or give her a proper hug goodbye.  For me, the heart of this scene isn’t LB flying away; it’s when Marion, looping around the terminals alone, finally accepts her daughter’s independence and acknowledges the pain in watching her leave.   Lastly, I appreciate how Lady Bird doesn’t make the argument that moving away from home is the same as growing out of it.  When LB clambers up from the subway with her suitcase, she’s not suddenly “grown up.”  She still turns to things that remind her of her childhood and hometown: she sets a stuffed animal on her dorm bed, yells “Bruce!” to the stars at a college party, wanders into a church, and even trades in “Lady Bird” for her given name, Christine.   Verdict: Gerwig takes us through adolescent benchmarks without hitting a single clichéd note.  Like the title character, Lady Bird resonates with spunk and sincerity.