Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior at a Catholic girls’ high school in Sacramento, California, but don’t call her that: her given name is Lady Bird, she insists, in the sense that it is “a name given to me, by me.” And with this I have just summed up the plot of ‘Lady Bird’, the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig who has also written its screenplay.
There are plaid skirts and white polos, whimsical Sisters, boys in ties, student elections and cool teachers – all in the opening credits; yes, ‘Lady Bird’ does wear the same uniform as ’10 Things I Hate About You’, ‘Freaky Friday’, ‘All I Wanna Do’, ‘Heathers’, ‘Charlie Bartlett’, ‘Clueless’, ‘Almost Famous’, ‘Mean Girls’, ‘Igby Goes Down’, ‘Angus, Thongs, and the Perfect Snogging’, ‘My So-Called Life‘ (your reviewer, as you can see, has a PhD in teen dramedies) and other less accomplished movies in which one or more bright and confused teenagers either a) apply to college, b) fight with their parents, c) try to come to terms with the world, or d) all of the above. But the five minutes preceding the opening credits which show the end of a mother-daughter trip are so full of candor they fill the almost-too-familiar intro with excitement over what you have just witnessed – and what you are just about to. In the overcrowded classroom of coming-of-age films, ‘Lady Bird’ is the one who always gets all the answers right just by showing up.
Christine’s “given name” instantly reminded me of Stargirl, the (also self-named) protagonist of Jerry Spinelli’s eponymous novel – my first (and perhaps favourite) taste of young adult fiction, about a girl lit from within by her free spirit, eccentricity and kindness. Christine herself, however, did not remind me of Stargirl at all. Unlike Stargirl, 2/3 human and 1/3 fairy, Christine is a full “unholy mess of a girl” (in the words of Katharine Hepburn’s character in ‘The Philadelphia Story’): she is idealistic – Lady Bird wants to go to college “where culture is, like New York, or Connecticut or New Hampshire”, insecure – about her grades and her house which is “on the wrong side of the tracks”, both impulsive and thoughtful, reckless and kind, a rebel (just in theory) who (secretly) wants to fit in (in practice). Making herself up as she goes along, Lady Bird swings between excitement and disappointment as she tries to figure out whether everything is happening to her, or perhaps nothing at all.
While Lady Bird dreams of escaping, her pragmatic mother (Laurie Metcalf) can’t help but constantly cut her wings. They are too different in their worldview – one overly-idealistic, the other overly-practical and judgmental, and too alike in their stubbornness, but also in how much they love yet cannot seem to be able to communicate with each other. The conversations Lady Bird and her mother have often twist in equally unexpected and comical ways: they can be mean to each other, only to turn soft moments later, and vice versa, their relationship a series of mutually reinforcing fights and bonding moments, both funny and a little sad.
Like a bird who steals shiny objects, Greta Gerwig seems to have both the taste and the skill for extracting from real-life those characters, dialogues and moments most gleaming with truthfulness. And like a talented secret agent, she leaves no traces: her catches are so well embroidered in her fictional world that it leaves the viewer wondering if there was any act of catching or embroidering at all. The absolute best part is that you can taste it all – the fizzy excitement, the sweet joy, the sour disappointment, the sharp wit, the bitter uncertainty – not just because they could have happened, but because they could have happened (and maybe did) to you; not just because they could have been said, but because you could have said them.
The awkward best friend, the popular girl, the sweet boyfriend, the bad boy, occasional mischief, school plays, school dances, driving tests, parties, college applications, clothes shopping. All good teen movies play with clichés so that they create alternative high school worlds you have to be part of. ‘Clueless’ gives them a makeover so stylish you forget they’re clichés. In ’10 Things I Hate About You’ clichés are schooled into being impossibly cool and cultured. ‘Mean Girls’ mocks them skillfully, and ‘Heathers’, the cool mom of ‘Mean Girls’, mocks its clichés whilst setting them on fire. ‘Lady Bird’, on the other hand, does something completely unexpected: it reveals the clichés as they are when no one is looking – that is, truths; clichés stop being clichés and become revelations. This is not just another good teen story; it is much more than that: it is truly authentic. The alternative high school world of ‘Lady Bird’ doesn’t make you wish you could be a part of it someday for one simple reason: you already were.
‘Lady Bird’ is nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Supporting Actress.
Showing in selected UK cinemas: 16th February | Wide release: 23rd February
Photo Credit: Irina Anghel