I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Lady Bird

Of all the stories we tell over and over, “coming of age” might be the most universal. I don’t care who you are, as long as you live to be a certain age, at some point you’re gonna come of some of that age. And when you see some fictional (or, let’s be honest, usually semi-autobiographical) character’s age coming of you can compare and contrast to your experiences. You see echoes of your own life, revive emotions that were so potent at the time, now faded, learn about other people who had it different. So I have not specifically experienced being a girl in a private school in Sacramento in the oughts, and I definitely have no personal understanding of how it feels to be someone who could identify a song as Dave Mathews and have an emotional response to it that involves embarrassment, nostalgia and personal meaning*, but I can also see those things on screen and have them feel familiar and real and relatable.

(*I did see him in public one time and I could tell he was famous by the women who started gathering around him but I had to ask somebody else who he was)

Saoirse “like inertia” Ronan (HANNA) plays our protagonist, whose mom calls her Christine but she insists on being called Lady Bird – no reason given or needed. She’s nearing graduation and dreams of leaving her hated suburban homeland by getting into an East Coast college. But she doesn’t have great grades and money is tight in her family and her mom gets mad at the very idea of it (and at dad for always getting to be the good guy by being more supportive/indulgent).

Mom is played by Laurie Metcalf (SCREAM 2), who I love so much from watching her as Jackie on Roseanne, so it’s cool seeing her get a good movie role like this (and an Oscar nomination). They have a relationship that seems very legit to me – mostly at odds, but through real love. The opening sums it up well – a shared passion (listening to an audiobook together) quickly shifting to bickering that needlessly escalates into catastrophic fight.

Lady Bird proves that kids can be individualistic while wearing uniforms. She has a goofy sense of humor and mischief that both exhausts and amuses the nuns. Like Max Fischer in RUSHMORE she’s both a troublemaker and clearly very smart, both prickly and lovable. She is frequently out of line, not only with her mom but with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, NEIGHBORS 2), but it’s the kind of thing where if she doesn’t realize she’s wrong and regret it soon she will when she gets a little older.

(She also must have incredibly good thrift store luck judging by the western shirt she wears to the prom or school dance or whatever.)

She goes through interest in a couple different boys. Lucas Hedges from MANCHESTER BY THE SEA does another one of his “oh shit, he’s in this movie too?” appearances. Timothee Chalamet from CALL ME BY YOUR NAME is one of the funniest parts of the movie as a douchily performative self-styled intellectual rebel dude. Got a big laugh out of me when they showed him at a party reading The People’s History of the United States. It’s a dead on portrayal of the type because you can instantly hate him and also understand why young Lady Bird would fall for his shtick.

It’s been cool to watch Greta Gerwig go from standout in so-called “mumblecore” movies (I guess I only saw the horror ones, BAGHEAD and THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL), to “oh shit, she’s in a movie with Ben Stiller!” (GREENBERG) to “she actually co-wrote these Noah Baumbach movies she starred in” (FRANCES HA, MISTRESS AMERICA) and I still didn’t see it coming that all the sudden she’s a deservingly Oscar-nominated director. Her mix of quirky character details, dry humor and melancholy seems very much in the tradition of Baumbach’s frequent collaborator Wes Anderson, but the visual style takes nothing from it (which is vital, because few things are as painful as coming off as an imitator of a true original). I think there’s a really good rhythm to the thing. It can take its time and linger on character moments but also use abrupt edits in a funny or energetic way (for example the way they introduce her broken arm, or the lightning speed jump through a guy encounter in the epilogue).

We can also assume that she’s great with the actors, considering the universally great performances. It’s not like Ronan is ever bad, but you can hear Gerwig’s speech patterns in this character.

I tend to like Baumbach’s movies, but there’s a bit of a cold dickishness to the ones he made before Gerwig’s contributions. I thought she made him nicer, and LADY BIRD supports that theory with its non-judgmental humanity. Nobody’s perfect but nobody’s a bad guy either – not the rich popular kids, not the nuns, some of whom are very understanding of Lady Bird and even get her sense of humor. There are little moments to show sides of the characters that Lady Bird is oblivious to, like the Father/musical director from school (Stephen Henderson, FENCES) having his own struggles outside of school. (He also has a top level funny-devastating moment when he’s having the kids try to make themselves cry in acting class and is a little too ready for it.)

(Warning: personal shit, next two paragraphs)

But to me it’s mostly about her hate-love relationship with her mom and her town. She thinks she hates them and will find that she loves them. My mom is in hospice right now, and you can’t really communicate with her anymore. She doesn’t seem to be there. But things still come up that I want to ask her about, and then I remember that it’s too late. It’ll occur to me that I don’t know something or other about one of my parents or my childhood and then realize that there’s no one left to tell me. So I’m only just beginning the process of memory and introspection I went through when I lost my dad a few years ago. But of course I can’t watch LADY BIRD without comparing her family life to mine. Her mom doesn’t resemble mine on the surface, but they do have alot in common when I think about it. The first thing I recognized was how much their relationship is like the one between my mom and my sister. Something about that age put them at each other’s throats, and then it just faded away as time went on. And I definitely know that dynamic of the mom yelling at the dad because the dad doesn’t want to be the one to yell at the kids.

And then there’s the little moment where Lady Bird’s brother’s girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott), who lives with them, matter-of-factly stands up for Mom. She’s this kinda punk girl whose own family treats her like shit, and Lady Bird’s Mom took her in like she was her own child. That’s what my mom was like. Straight laced, goodie two shoes, skipped the hippies and the rock ‘n roll, never smoked a joint in her life, married her college boyfriend, went to church, went to school functions, freaked out when my sister got her nose pierced. But when it came to the big stuff – teen pregnancy, coming out – she was as understanding as you could dream. When my sister’s best friend wasn’t getting along with her dad she let her move in for a few years. Moms have layers. I hope Lady Bird’s – and her dad – get to live to be real old and happy together.

Everybody I know loved LADY BIRD, but I noticed a tinge of scorn for it online when it was winning a few awards, because in a year when more black artists are starting to get their due they see this as a very white people movie. And if it were to win best picture (which I don’t expect) I bet we’d be hearing a whole lot of that Monday morning. But I say fuck that because this is not more of the same, this is not the usual voice or subject matter of the movies canonized for awards-worthy excellence. I believe there is a strong cultural bias against movies about or for girls. TITANIC won best picture but is still a punchline for having the gall to be a romantic melodrama from a female perspective. Female-oriented stuff like TWILIGHT or FIFTY SHADES receives widespread derision of a quicker and more vicious nature than more male-oriented junk like, say, the TRANSFORMERS series, which was given leniency for years. And people might be mad at white women right now because of the ones that voted for Trump or whatever Lena Dunham said recently, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are a large part of our population who have not been given enough of a chance to tell their personal stories in this medium. I bet you could name a whole lot of men who have made movies somewhat inspired by their youth, but not nearly as many women. And Gerwig has made one that I saw once a couple months ago and it still brings up a warm feeling in me writing about it now. I hope she has a bunch more in her.

* * *

Programming note: I’m also writing up a little Oscar preview post for later today

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, March 1st, 2018 at 1:25 pm and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Drama, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

19 Responses to “Lady Bird”

  1. Shit man. I’m so sorry to hear about your mom.

    Not sure whether your tendency to keep your personal life largely out of the picture on here is due to professionalism, or just because you are a man of mystery by nature. but, fwiw, it never feels intrusive or indulgent to me when it comes up in a review.

    To piggyback on your point about Hollywood’s bias towards male-centric coming-of-age movies— I think there’s also a huge tendency towards “dad relationship movies,” and mom-oriented ones get the short end of the stick (and the stick is kept in a dark storeroom somewhere far away).

    Also: we hear a lot about how studios are making fewer big-budget movies than ever these days. is that also true of how many A-list actors are available to appear in them? I ask because I’ve never gotten to the point of “jeez, this fucking kid again?” with an actor quite as quickly as i have with Lucas Hedges. and that’s not a slight on him; “doing fine —> suddenly sobbing hysterically” is a tough beat to pull off, i’m sure, but there’s got to be other sensitive younger guys working in Hollywood besides him…. right? what exactly is the deal here?

  2. My thoughts are with you and your mom, Vern.

    I thought this was an instant classic. I loved the subtle, yet still easy to follow, time jumps, and Gerwig’s direction isn’t flashy, but it’s perfect. EVERY performance is so strong. I was also taken with Tracy Letts, who, as the dad, is clearly going through a severe depression, yet is still there for his daughter and wife.

  3. Crushinator Jones

    March 1st, 2018 at 2:35 pm

    That’s rough, Vern. My sincerest and truest condolences.

  4. I liked this one, too. It was so recognizable and relatable and easy. It was the movie equivalent of finding a new sweater that fits you just right. Nothing earthshattering, but a very nice way to spend an afternoon.

    I loved the ease in which it would move through the different emotions and interactions. Like when Lady Bird and her mom are arguing in the thrift store and her mom holds up a dress and Lady Bird immediately shifts gears to gush about the dress.

    I like that it took the emotions seriously without making them the center of a dramatic explosion. It made them feel more legitimate. Like when the popular girl found out Lady Bird lied about where she lived, she didn’t let her off the hook about being a liar, but she didn’t launch a campaign to bully her or some melodramatic reaction.

    After the movie my friends and I were talking and I brought up the Dave Matthews scene with her and her friend singing and crying and said every woman could relate to that – my guy friend said girls aren’t the only ones who could relate and I felt shamed for claiming such a thing for my gender alone. I really appreciate you standing up for the female viewpoint and all that jazz. Just recently I was thinking about how annoying it is that everyone goes on about how Taylor Swift isn’t as good as Adele and Adele isn’t as good as Beyonce and how it’s a travesty that any woman has any recognition other than the one they think is the best. No one goes through this bullshit with Ed Sheeran, Bruno Mars, Justin Timberlake. But I digress. Thanks for your support.

    I’m really sorry to hear about your mom. That sucks. There’s no other words. I hope it helps to know all of us here appreciate all you do for us to have a great place to talk about something we love.

  5. What a fucking world, huh? Stay strong. Best to you and your family.

    And may the best movie win, you know? (Often the best ones aren’t even nominated, and certainly not the ones that would win many action or horror awards, but that’s a discussion for another day.) While I can imagine the backlash Vern mentions, it would be a shame for a woman-directed picture to face that kind of heat, white cast or not.

    Having said that, Get Out was definitely my favorite out of the one (yes, one) nominee that I’ve seen.

  6. Thanks for the kind words, everybody. I wasn’t looking for that, and I’m okay for now. It’s been a long several years. I think about that “It’s a long road” song from FIRST BLOOD alot. But you guys are all so nice and supportive and please know I really appreciate that.

  7. a thing i really enjoy about this movie is how Gerwig takes pains to leaven what is intrinsically a self-indulgent genre (i.e. the semi autobiographical coming of age film) with moments that demonstrate an understanding that the world is way bigger than its protagonist’s life and problems. Probably my favorite moment like that is a single shot of an actor who doesn’t even have a line: there’s this random nun (i think? she didn’t look like any of the main nuns, to me anyway) at the prom watching Lady Bird and her friend goof around on the dance floor, and the nun’s got this haunted, stricken expression on her face that could have easily been played as a comic “nun is scandalized bc she thinks they’re lesbians” moment. and hey, that would have worked fine. But the way the actor plays it & Gerwig shoots it, i get the sense that this nun is remembering a similar long-ago friendship of hers, one in which she’d never been honest about her own feelings, and has always regretted. which is so much richer than “lol, nuns are uptight,” and it’s all communicated in about .75 seconds without a single word. Ambiguity, man! It makes for a hell of a secret weapon.

    (Then again, Gerwig said recently that she plans to make 5 other movies set in this version of Sacramento, so maybe we’ll get that nun’s full life story someday.)

  8. Sorry to hear about your current life, man. That’s the kind of stuff, that all of us dreads.

    Also how do you pronounce “inertia”? Not helpful, for us non-native English speakers! In-nerd-chia?

  9. The Undefeated Gaul

    March 2nd, 2018 at 1:43 am

    Hang in there, Vern. This type of stuff really makes me think I should talk with my parents more, ask them stuff. They’re currently doing great for their age and it’s easy to take that for granted, just go on living this busy life that’s flying by and not give any thought to how lucky I am for still having them around. You never know what’s around the corner. Sooner than I think I might be looking back on exactly this period as being “the good times” and kick myself for not appreciating them more.

    And CJ, Saoirse is pronounced sur-sha (inertia would be innur-sha).

  10. Awful to hear about your mom. I had to deal with something like that a few years back with my grandma and hate to think about it for either of my parents. I can’t imagine what that’s like. My heart goes out to you.

    I also really liked this movie. I didn’t directly connect with it but I saw some of my mom’s relationship with my sister in here as well as various other mom and daughter relationships growing up. And I don’t see any how anyone could deny the strong craft all around in this movie or rate it below numerous other male coming of age movies besides bias. And that’s a hell of a strong genre. To me, The bits I connected most to were that dress shopping scene was really spot on, and the beginning was great. A scene that really set the tone. And the ending worked as a capstone without being a cop out. I also thought the school scenes with the male teacher who some of the girls crushed on but he was dense to it and made lame jokes was great.

    It’ll be a bit weird if this gets the so white backlash. Right now it seems like this movie is actually getting paired more with GET OUT son my social media feed vs BILLBOARDS and SHAPE OF WATER, which is also a bit weird aside from how I personally liked them less and how they feel a bit more traditional Oscar to me (eg how shape is repackaging an adult fairy tale of fish sex into the standard romantic formula of lovers with huge obstacles between them and throwing in some Hollywood motifs; or how billboards feels more like a play with big speeches and not grounded in reality or strong real life logic ddespite it’s big speeches and pretense). But it’s weird because thematically is think GET OUT and THE SHAPE OF WATER are coming at things from a similar viewpoint racially and towards discrimination (outside of one being a romance failure and the other being some sort of destiny).

  11. Sursha, okay, got it. Irish names are complicated. A friend’s baby is named Aiofe, which is just pronounced “Eva”, if I remember right.

  12. I think the Irish are pranking the rest of the world. “We’ll spell it completely ridiculous and then pronounce it however the hell we want.”

  13. That’s language for you. You wouldn’t even be able to guess how we pronounce some of the names we got here in Scandinavia.

  14. Who’s Dave Mathews?

    I’m normally rather averse to semi-autobiographical coming-of-age movies, partly because I find the idea a bit self-indulgent (which I know is silly, given how often screenwriters or directors weave their own experiences into their plots), partly because I have trouble relating to the adolescence of would be arsty-fartsy Hollywood types, or whatever. But that doesn’t mean I think these movies shouldn’t be made. This idea that whole swathes of movie-makers should stop making movies because of their race or gender or whatever is – in my opinion – just stupid and self-defeating. The debate has devolved to the point where just about every movie made is attacked for failing some sort of test or other. Samuel L. Jackson even criticised GET OUT because the main actor wasn’t American. It seems to me that a lot – not all, but a lot – of these social media “backlashes” are just examples of mean-spirited bullies trying to maintain a position of self-important self-righteousness. Clearly the issues of race and gender balance in the movie industry are going to be tough nuts to crack – as evidenced by the fact that decades of attempting the same things in politics, policing, etc, have progressed pretty slowly – so simply pouring scorn on a whole bunch of well-meaning projects is not going to change things overnight.

    Anyway, hang in there Vern. It’s a tough time you’re going through.

  15. I definitely think the backslashes are in part the last dying gasp of the old ideas and regimes before the door hits them in the ass on their way out. God, I really hope so. The current political climate and the anonymity of the internet gave them the courage to voice their ignorant hate.

    But, also, I think some of it comes from within the groups themselves, like your example of Samuel L. Jackson complaining about GET OUT being headed by a non- American. I don’t know where it comes from, but it seems like a lot of people have to bitch and moan if something isn’t exactly the way they think it should be.

    Like, one time a few years ago some exercise magazine had a trans man on the cover. When I learned about it I was sitting with a gay man and I said, “Oh, hey, did you know about this? That’s awesome.” My friend made a face and I asked him what that was about. He said, “Yeah, I just wish he wasn’t so CIS.” You just can’t please everyone. I mean, come on, take the wins when they come and work on improving them.

  16. Unfortunately, Maggie, I’m probably not as optimistic as you when it comes to human nature. I wasn’t even thinking about the racist or sexist reactionaries out there. It seems to me that the need to belittle others runs deep, hence this counter-productive points scoring which the anonymity of the Internet, in particular, encourages. It doesn’t seem to matter the political stripe, it’s like people just want to cut others down for minor infractions of ever more esoteric rules.

  17. Vern,
    My mom passed two weeks ago after a long bout of Alzheimer’s. She went into hospice on a Monday because she chose to stop eating, which is the only way I think she had figured out how to beat that horrible disease. The last time I saw her a few weeks before was the first time she didn’t recognize me, which is tough. I really only skim the reviews on movies I haven’t seen yet and I haven’t seen this yet so not even sure why you brought up your moms illness, but I am such a fan of your site that I thought I’d say hey. Alzheimer’s does not fight fair and Alzheimer’s is undefeated. I hope your mom is at peace, I know my mom is.

  18. Jeff,

    Sorry to hear about your mom. Mine doesn’t have Alzheimer’s as far as we know, but my dad did, and her state now is similar except she’s bed-ridden. It came after a long bout with a brain tumor that was removed and she was doing well until some seizures and falls messed her up and then she got cancer on top of that, and they don’t even know what caused the loss of her mental faculties. It has been horrible but I’ve learned alot about life, and I feel like there’s a bond or understanding between people have been through this sort of thing.

    Thanks for the words of support, and right back at you.

  19. I liked this one a lot but could not imagine it ever winning best movie of the year.

    Some random observations:

    – I put off watching this a long time because the 30 minutes of FRANCES HA that I watched were excruciating.
    – I was really distracted watching this because I kept thinking, “this Saoirse Ronan is the same age as me (38) so why is she playing a teenager?”; but I looked it up and apparently she is only 23!
    – I actually saw Saoirse Ronan in person last year at a coffee shop outside Dublin last year. I was visiting family there and was in a Starbucks with my bro-lo. He was like, “OMG that’s Saoirse Ronan over there” and I was like “Who?” and he was like “the actress” and I was like “what is she in?” and he was like “……” and so we were looking at her across the room while looking her up on imdb and I was like “I have never seen any of these movies.” I’ve seen a couple since – Brooklyn, Hanna and this one. I think she’s pretty great.

    Jeff and Vern – sorry to hear what you’re going through. I know how you feel – I am reading this on my mom’s birthday – she passed away a couple of years ago from stomach cancer. She was diagnosed in January and was gone by November. It’s a horrible experience that I would not wish on anyone. I hope you guys are doing OK and I really hope that you have some great memories to hold on to.

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