Lady Bird was a cool movie. A fun movie. A nice way to pass an evening. Decent performances, some witty dialogue. Essentially the obligatory “coming of age” movie of the year. What Lady Bird is not, is “Big-Screen Perfection” – New York Times, “Remarkable” – IGN, or “Nothing short of tremendous” – Paste Magazine. It was more special than some coming of age films, and not as special as others. It was unique in some ways and cliched in others. Saoirse Ronan puts in a fine performance – she did just enough to be quirky and endearing, while still reminding you that she was an annoying teenager still trying to feel out her place in the world. Is it worthy of an Oscar nomination? Refer to my review of Molly’s Game and Jessica Chastain’s performance which went unrecognised. Laurie Metcalf on the other hand, who plays her mother Marion McPherson, is more than deserving of her nomination. She has fantastic lines, which she delivers with whip and wit. The two of them play off each other fantastically and all credit must go to writer Greta Gerwig for giving them some superb material to work with.
The originality of this piece as a coming of age tale lies in the mother-daughter relationship between Ronan and Metcalf. As much as they love each other, they struggle to understand one another and to effectively communicate. As Lady Bird’s dad says they “both have such strong personalities”. Lady Bird, whose real name is Christine, gave herself this name as an act of rebellion at having to go along with whatever name your parents give you. They are constantly at odds, disagreeing over almost everything. Marion is hypercritical of her daughter, often putting her down rather than encouraging her, and for all her defiance, all Lady Bird really wants is acceptance, which she equates with love.
My favourite scene is undoubtedly when Lady Bird is trying on prom dresses and of course nothing her mom says is right and Lady Bird asks, “Do you like me?”. Her mom responds, “Of course I love you.” To which Lady Bird replies, “I know you love me, but do like me?” This really resonated with me. The idea of obligatory love, and how it doesn’t necessitate like, is very hurtful and something that has always been close to the surface with me personally. Her mom follows this up with “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be”. To which Lady Bird replies sadly, “What if this is the best version?” I can really relate to this, not just as a teenager, but even now, and so I found this scene very poignant and relevant.
The rest of the movie was very run of the mill teenage stuff. An unwavering dedication to get into college on the other side of the country (against her mother’s wishes), a strong determination to lose her virginity, a fallout with her best friend, feeling out of place (in this case due to class and being a bit weird), finding out the things you think are life’s biggest problems aren’t all that big in the greater scheme of things, finding out you aren’t the centre of the universe, having your heart broken (twice), getting back together with your best friend, and finally going away to college. You know, your typical high school senior’s experience. Just with better dialogue and superior acting performances.
Now for the knit picking. Because when the cinematic world has declared something to be earth shattering and ground-breaking when it was merely excellent and highly enjoyable, you open yourself up to scrutiny that I would otherwise have let slide. I’m going to start with a comparison and the grand hypocrite that is Hollywood and the world in general: When a movie as flawlessly put together as Three Billboards is being lambasted for not handling race issues appropriately, why are we heaping praise on a film that is essentially about “white girl problems” and very little else and not mentioning the fact that there are absolutely NO black characters? This is something critics jumped down Martin McDonagh’s throat for – yet I have seen nothing ciritcising the lack of representation in Greta Gerwig’s supposed “masterpiece”.
Yes, we have Miguel, who seems to be of Hispanic descent, and his girlfriend Shelly, who seems to be mixed-race. But note the use of “seems to be”, because their characters aren’t even explored enough for us to find out their racial background. We don’t even know why Shelly is living with the McPherson’s and not with her own family and we don’t really know why they are struggling to find jobs despite their college educations. Now I’m not saying that this aspect of the movie particularly bothered me – if you’ve read any of my other posts or reviews you’ll know where I stand on representation – I’m just saying that if critics are going to be loudmouthed on an issue (particularly during awards season) they need to be consistent about it. We had our token gay character in her first boyfriend Danny, which provided us with another beautiful scene when he comes to visit Lady Bird post-break at the coffee shop where she works and emotionally begs her not to reveal his sexuality to anyone as he’s still not sure how to deal with it. But that’s pretty much the last we hear of him. Again, I don’t personally have a problem with this, but I feel like the typically over-sensitive Hollywood critics usually preaching representation are showering Gerwig in glittery praise when usually they would be burning directors at the stake for this. Where is the consistency?
Blame it on my OCD (the genuine mental health condition, not the kind they use for comedic effect in TV pop culture – I’m looking at you Big Bang Theory) but I have an overwhelming need for closure, and Lady Bird just seemed to leave so many things open-ended; questions that were so obviously left deliberately unanswered in an attempt to be mysterious and avant-garde. Suspect number one: Adoption. Miguel is obviously adopted. Or is he? Is he from a previous marriage? Lady Bird makes it very explicit he is a different race to her when she suggests he only got into Berkley because of affirmative action. Is Lady Bird adopted? This would explain her need to give herself a new name and the extreme difficulty she has connecting with her mother. The fact that the word “adoption” is never used, never mind explored, is downright weird.
Lady Bird and Miguel have a strange relationship. Is this because of the adoption? It is common for brothers and sisters to not get along, however there are moments in the movie when Miguel shows that he does in fact care for her – when Kyle comes to fetch her for prom and merely honks instead of coming to the door he remarks “Even you deserve better than this”. He also goes to the trouble of securing his old job at the grocery store for her. Yet, we never really see any sign of reciprocation of this type of affection coming from Lady Bird towards him. Is this because he’s adopted, and she isn’t? Is it because they’re both adopted? Wouldn’t it be lovely if we even had a clue?
Suspect number two: The film finished with me screaming at the TV: “WHICH COLLEGE DID SHE GET INTO?!” We were treated to a scene of her furiously ripping open envelopes of colleges that had rejected her. We know one of them was Columbia. And finally, one of them had placed her on the waiting list, and eventually accepted her. But which college was it? We will never know. And that infuriates me. I usually don’t mind a mysterious ending but this one just felt commercial, manipulative and like it was trying too hard. I wanted closure. I wanted to know if Lady Bird had truly achieved success. Yes, I know the goal was to go to the East Coast and she was in New York City, but if she was in some dead-end college no one has ever heard of and would probably wind up back home by the end of the second semester, then that wasn’t a success and it changes the movie. So, tell me which college she got into dammit!
I am fully aware that I am being unnecessarily harsh on this movie. It is a very good movie. The acting is exceptional (Jessica Chastain was still better though). The writing is superb. As coming of age movies go, it’s up there. It’s not the movie I’m mad at, it’s the hypocrisy. If the Academy is changing the types of movies and performances it gives awards to, then it needs to consistently do so. Juno was released in 2007. A glorious coming of age tale, with an almost identical list of nominations. In the ten years since there have been several similar movies just as worthy of comparable praise but they were snubbed and did not receive the rave reviews and sparkling attention that is showering upon Lady Bird. Why? And why is Lady Bird immune to the criticism of representation, white-bias and one-dimensional storytelling that is raining down upon its competition?
Politics and awards season aside, it is a very enjoyable movie.
Oscar Worthy Coming of Age Movies Between Juno and Ladybird
2007 Charlie Bartlett
2009 Whip It
2012 The Perks of Being a Wallflower
2012 The Way Way Back
2013 The Spectacular Now
2014 Wish I Was Here
2015 Paper Towns
2015 Me, Earl and the Dying Girl
2016 Carrie Pilby
Any others you’d like to add?