— Leos Carax
The self-named star we might expect to come of age in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird opens her senior year with arm in cast, signs up for a drama audition, breaks out of one friend group into another, considers her parents’ ideas of post-high school success as a kind of partly misinformed smokescreen, doesn’t want to be where she is and doesn’t hide it: school, city, class — she wants to transcend them all. Gerwig’s carefully worded screenplay doesn’t view this as a performative cry for help; instead, we observe, without explosions or gaudy inventions, the way (Christine) Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) navigates what she sees as her increasingly independent life.
Often, this kind of narrative has the filmmakers fracture the world: a voiceover seals off the protagonist’s voice into a zone of wry freedom, abrupt style sections the setting into easily digestible chunks, or entire perspectives, like those of adults or family members, are lopped off except where they directly concern the adolescent anti-hero’s plot trajectory. Gerwig instead does her utmost to keep the whole world in steady motion. A lot of this comes from her film’s unusual structure: never anything but comfortably following the chronology of Lady Bird’s senior high school year at Immaculate Heart, the film still alternates between home, relationships, school life, and tangents that point toward the world outside unpredictably. Gerwig never denies the extremely prescribed nature of school-age life, but lifts out and examines, one by one, the environments Lady Bird enters into with the kind of respect and dignity that might be afforded to a generation-spanning epic. While Gerwig’s film is in some corners being compared as a kind of response to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, it’s closer to Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!! in the way it suggests transitory maturation: a process of trying out for one thing, and then another, and another, then circling back to the ones with the strongest gravitational pull.
Without any knowledge of the filmmakers and their careers, it would be very easy to assume this an assured, veteran work — it seems steeped in experience, able to delve into young romanticism and adult barebones existence equally. But this is the work of Gerwig, directing solo for the first time — “I’ve wanted to direct for as long as I can remember,” she’s said. Without assuming too much, it seems fair to suggest that part of what took so long has to do with the restrictive dictates of the film industry, and part of it has been beneficial: those credited with the film’s production design and cinematography, among others, have followed Gerwig from past collaborative relationships (Chris Jones from 20th Century Women, Sam Levy from Gerwig’s work with Noah Baumbach), and Gerwig has developed this film as if continuing the breezy and painstaking tradition of great American popular cinema: equally indebted to painting, theatre, literature, and the energies coursing through life.
As her past co-directing partners Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach have signed agreements to produce for and promote Netflix (Gerwig isn’t credited as director on the Baumbach films, but there’s a case to be made she’s their auteur more than he is), Lady Bird represents something different: a film that wants to elbow aside any idea of disposability, and instead ruthlessly moves through social spheres, relationships, and walks of life in an economical 90 minutes. At its grandest, with Ronan’s Lady Bird learning how to tie herself to and extricate herself from other people, it seems a parallel to Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, equally fascinated with the doom and gifts found in one’s origins. But mostly this is a film that depicts the orbiting sensibilities of oneself and one’s family, who stand in for so much: we sense, in her actions, the way, with so much pain surrounding her (the dismissive tone of her mother, the distanced tragedy on television, the closed-environment pressures of school and sex), she could find a lot to blame, a lot to be angry about. So Gerwig doesn’t let her narrative go that way. In this movie, the acerbic one-liners are something to grow out of.