Top Fifty Films of the 10s — Number Two

#2 — Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

For her debut feature as the sole credited director, Greta Gerwig opted for a story so personal that it clearly approaches full-on autobiography. Lady Bird is set in the California city where Gerwig grew up, and it takes place in the near-past, the timeframe of the the protagonist’s final year of high school aligning nicely with Gerwig’s own. Even without the benefit of familiarity with the demographic details on Gerwig’s Wikipedia page, it’s clear that the particulars of the film resonate with lived experience. The film is infused with the wistfulness of memory, the wry humor of reckoning with overcome immaturity, and a riffle of tender confession and low-simmer regret.

With remarkable precision in conveying inner feelings, Saoirse Ronan plays Christine McPherson, who far prefers her chosen moniker of Lady Bird. She is a senior at a Catholic high school, her eyes restlessly on the future as she endures the disenchantment of her present. She has frustrations at school and with boys, but most of her stress and strain comes from her home life, especially due to the complicated relationship she has with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Gerwig renders these family skirmishes with an acute accuracy, showing special adeptness for dramatizing the way arguments escalate from innocuous comments — perhaps misconstrued, perhaps not — into tsunamis of accumulate grievances and expert blows at emotional soft spots.

The rueful poignancy of Gerwig’s storytelling never slices against the winning humor she crafts in the screenplay. She understands that shrewdly observed and conveyed specifics heighten the reality and the comedy at once. Lady Bird is marvelous assemblage of small details: Goodwill shopping trips, a family patriarch tuning out a squabble so he can play computer solitaire, a high school drama teacher’s consternation when a production isn’t received with the awestruck reverence he feels it deserves, and Howard Zinn’s signature history read at a high school party to signal rebellious intellect in a dreamboat boy. Gerwif gets every facet of the film absolutely right, creating a whole existence that expands beyond the screen’s borders.

The narrative covers a full year, structured around memorable moments with holidays taking particular prominence. Lady Bird is a film of touchstone experiences, just as reminiscing tends to revolve around momentous days that lock in the mind more than the sweep of being. Understanding of self is built out of sliding together those remembered experiences, moments, people. With a keen sense of how to frame her shots and how to build her scenes, Gerwig transform impressions into drama, scenes into a life. Her cast responds with performances that are bold and yet grounded, personalities that strike like predators and yet feel wisely contained. Ronan and Metcalf are truly extraordinary, and a fleet of great supporting players — led by Tracy Letts, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, and Stephen McKinley Henderson — fill in every crevasse.

Lady Bird is pure, true filmmaking. It performs the unique cinematic sorcery of being a thoroughly individualistic expression of its director that is also brightly, emphatically universal. Gerwig is a special talent. This wondrous film is proof of that.

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