LADY BIRD Review
Director: Greta Gerwig
It all comes back to Fellini. When George Lucas released AMERICAN GRAFFITI in 1973, when Martin Scorsese released MEAN STREETS that exact same year, they all shared a common thread: Federico Fellini’s I VITELLONI. It’s a majestic work of art that isn’t in the public discourse as frequently as LA DOLCE VITA or 8 1/2, but that in no way lessens its impact. A film about young men transitioning into adulthood, making amends with their hometown, and accepting the need to move on (and move out), Fellini’s work was an immediate progenitor to countless phenomenal directorial debuts. And it makes sense: I VITELLONI is deeply personal, a film whose strengths lie in its passion to capture a sense of “home” and what it means to leave it. Cue Greta Gerwig, a modern icon of independent cinema, and the righteous heir to the throne of I VITELLONI. Let me just say this: I can’t begin to articulate how many teenagers are about to have a new favorite film.
Whether or not LADY BIRD should be categorized as a debut film is a little up for grabs. Gerwig had previously co-directed NIGHTS AND WEEKENDS with fellow indie darling Joe Swanberg, but seeing that LADY BIRD is the first film she has sole directing credit on and doesn’t act in, it’s fair to say that this registers as a capital-G Gerwig outing. Following the footsteps of a turbulent, strong-willed teenager in her final year of high school, LADY BIRD is a profound introspection of family, purpose, and optimism in the face of adversity. Saoirse Ronan performs with impeccable detail, lovingly bringing to life this cynical, occasionally nihilistic teen. But LADY BIRD is never just one tone. Just when we think it can’t get any more cynical, it brightens up, proving that Ronan’s character is as ever-changing as any high schooler’s identity.
And that’s really what clicks with Gerwig’s debut. It’s an honest, loving, and deeply empathetic portrayal of early-aughts American households. It’s beautifully filmed, wonderfully cinematic, and surprisingly visual for a director whose previous works involve countless talk-heavy comedies. In her lean, 93-minute running time, LADY BIRD tackles maternal fears, loneliness, repressed homosexuality, loss of virginity, Catholic schooling, and unemployment with a depth and nuance rarely seen in family comedies. Saoirse Ronan’s performance hinges on the fact that nobody, including herself, is a perfect support system for the other. Her mother is too blunt, her father too kind, her brother too absent, her best friend too clingy, her boyfriend too self-serving, her classmate too posh, and she’s too overbearing. LADY BIRD understands that high school is a construct of broken, constantly changing personalities, most of which work in their own self-interest. It is a kingdom of means, and the greatest training ground adulthood can offer.
Which is why much of LADY BIRD does conjure up memories of Terry Zwigoff’s phenomenal 2001 comedy, GHOST WORLD, a film that similarly deals with anarchic high schoolers transitioning into adulthood (and, in turn, could probably nab the title of first female-centric I VITELLONI clone). Both films tackle the rupture of old friendships and the bonds that can bind them back together, as well as protagonists making the choice to move away from their dead-end town. Granted, both are themes that we’ve seen time and time again (most recently with this year’s Sundance darling, COLUMBUS), but LADY BIRD and GHOST WORLD both share a light at the end of their tunnel amidst all of their negative preaching.
Also a sequel to PRETTY IN PINK
But what separates the two is that LADY BIRD is more squarely involved with a mother-daughter relationship. Although Ronan goes through the ebb and flow of two boyfriends, college applications, and barista jobs, Gerwig’s clear focus is the maternal. It’s a trait that LADY BIRD shares with last year’s 20TH CENTURY WOMEN (a film Gerwig also acted in). For my money, LADY BIRD wonderfully expands much of what Mike Mills posited in his feature film, brilliantly detailing how two clashing personalities can blindly fight for each other’s love. A third act scene at an airport is sure to leave countless parents in tears, and though Ronan’s performance oozes with a comical existential angst, there is a profound love that permeates from all of her experiences. LADY BIRD is a film about mistakes and how they shape us, a declaration that we will always be our best selves if we hold ourselves accountable for what we’ve done wrong.