Wow, what a week for poisoned mother/daughter relationships onscreen! This past week you literally could have gone to Upstate Films in Rhinebeck with your BFF, endured acting newcomer Bria Vinaite’s raw portrayal of desperate Orlando motel-dweller Halley in The Florida Project, then shifted into the adjoining theater to watch Steppenwolf Theater Company/Roseanne veteran Laurie Metcalf make another daughter’s life miserable as Marion in Lady Bird. Afterwards, you could’ve gone out for dinner and argued over which one was a worse mom, however well-intentioned. In their approach to parental responsibility, the two characters are polar opposites; but no one in their right mind would want to live with either one of them.
Sounds like horror potboiler territory, on the surface, but it’s not. It’s holding a mirror up to real life. Mothering is a complicated, high-stakes, damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t role to play – as nearly all of us know, having experienced it from the receiving end, and many of us as the one trying to get it right. But facing the sorts of choices that mothers often do, weighing nearly equally unsatisfactory possible outcomes, is precisely the sort of character-building quandary that supplies red meat for the dramatist. Since the days of Greek and Roman theater, father/son conflicts have had their due onstage and onscreen; mother/daughter tensions, not so much, nor so seriously.
Greta Gerwig, making her directorial debut with Lady Bird, decided that it was time for that state of affairs to change and set out to craft “a female counterpart to tales like The 400 Blows and Boyhood.” Though it treads very familiar rom/com narrative ground (senior year of high school) and serves up a roster of clichéd secondary characters, Lady Bird successfully achieves her vision, with charm to spare. The film adds a pithy, well-crafted, gynocentric missing piece to the venerable Bildungsroman genre.
Gerwig, who won many hearts including this critic’s doing double duty as screenwriter and actress in 2013’s Frances Ha, channeled much of her own upbringing in Sacramento into the making of Lady Bird, including being an artsy, rebellious, non-religious kid attending a Catholic school. Her avatar Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who insists that people call her Lady Bird, is awkwardly trying to flap her way out of her middle-class nest and figure out who she really is. She experiments with romance and sex, tries to break into fancier social circles, finds a “family of choice” amongst fellow misfits in the Drama Club, hides her ineptitude at math by trashing the teacher’s grade book, gets herself suspended by making snarky remarks during an anti-abortion lecture. Most of all, she aspires to attend an East Coast college – a dream repeatedly shot down by that wet-blanket mother of hers.
Metcalf does an extraordinary job insinuating glimmers of forgivability into an eminently unsympathetic character. Between brief moments of mother/daughter bonding that illuminate the two characters’ similarities, the writer/director suspends long stretches of relentless criticism and disapproval on Marion’s part. It’s not that she doesn’t love her daughter; in fact, she works a grueling double shift as a psychiatric nurse largely to provide for Christine’s future. It’s just that Marion is practical to the point of neurosis, and can’t stop herself channeling maternal protectiveness into gloom and doom. Feeding the fires of her nagging is financial anxiety, as Christine’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) loses his IT job to a younger competitor.
But Marion is a tough person to spend time around; Lady Bird wants out of her car, out of her house, out of her hometown – and we don’t blame her one bit. It’s clear that this is a modestly talented young woman in dire need of a female role model who will encourage her (preferably one who isn’t celibate, though Lois Smith’s quick turn as an insightful nun/mentor is a pleasure to behold). We might take issue with some of Lady Bird’s impulsive choices, but doing stupid things at times is a privilege we freely accord the young as an essential part of their learning curve.
It helps that, like Gerwig herself, Ronan is an extremely gifted young actress who nails every line and can transmute adolescent awkwardness and thrift-shop fashion sense into Diane Keatonesque lovability. It’s clear that her Oscar-nominated 2015 performance in Brooklyn was no fluke. The rest of the well-cast actors provide sterling support, especially Manchester by the Sea breakout star Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird’s first love, Danny, and Beanie Feldstein (Jonah Hill’s little sister) as her best bud Julie.
For all the fine performances, it seems reasonable to predict that Lady Bird will be remembered primarily as a strong initial showcase for Gerwig as a director. We already knew that, as a screenwriter, she had a fantastic ear for naturalistic (and often very funny) dialogue. And as an actress, she has demonstrated full command of her craft, of her voice, stance, gesture and movement as tools to convey human experience – the experience of Gen-Y in particular. Now we know that she also has the gift to put other actors (and cinema techies) through their paces with precision to achieve her desired effect, whether that be comedic or poignant. For movie-lovers, this is welcome news.