- Year: The Movie “Lady Bird” Was Released 2017
- Director: Greta Gerwig
- Stars: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Timothee Chalamet
- Genre: Drama, Comedy
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Before Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) auditions for the school musical, she listens to a young man belt out the final notes of “Being Alive” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a young woman who has been given the name “Lady Bird” by her mother. “I wish I could just live through something,” she says wistfully as she leans her head against the glass of a moving automobile with her mother. Lady Bird—and the film of the same name, written and directed by Greta Gerwig—is a character with ambivalence coursing through her veins. She is stuck in Sacramento, where she believes there is nothing to offer her, yet she is acutely aware of everything her home has to offer her.
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Stephen Sondheim and Greta Gerwig are a wonderful fit, to say the least. “No one in musical theater does ambivalence quite like Sondheim, and generally no one tells you what it is until after you’ve seen it,” observed Michael Schulman in The New Yorker. A few filmmakers have been successful in capturing the ambiguity and mixed feelings that accompany the refusal to make a decision; consider the character of Bobby, who is 35 years old and has an impulsive desire to marry a friend, but who refuses to commit to any of his other girlfriends, in Company; Cinderella’s “hemming and hawing” on the, ahem, steps of the palace; or Mrs. Lovett’s hesitation in telling Sweeney her true motives in It is true that Lady Bird does not have the same high-concept as many of Sondheim’s works, but the film, and probably Gerwig’s work in general, has a piercing sincerity to it that causes its worries and tenderness to echo in the viewer’s heart with equal regularity.
Although Lady Bird has a wonderful sense of self-assurance, she is ambivalent about everything: She dislikes her given name, dislikes her hometown but cannot stop admiring its beauty, she is unsure of her religious beliefs (she attends a Catholic high school), and she is dissatisfied with her (class) status amongst her friends and in life, despite the fact that she, as her “scary, but warm-hearted mother” Marion (Laurie Metcalf) would be quick to point out, does not necessarily possess the work ethic to change things.
Throughout the film, Gerwig and Ronan demonstrate an extraordinary ability to portray the odd, but all too typical, state of mind that exists between between comfortable happiness and total dissatisfaction. She is wonderfully paradoxical in how confident she may be while approaching a boy and how dissatisfied she can be after having her first sexual encounter with someone. She, like the rest of us, if not more strongly, believes that things will be better on the other side of the proverbial fence when we get there. Always.
That the first boy she meets, a tall, gangly Danny (Lucas Hedges), auditions with “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods is not inconsequential; the song, written by a young Jack (of the beanstalk variety), ruminates on the bittersweet nature of change and emotional maturity, as well as the inability to have it both ways, is not inconsequential.
It is particularly interesting to read about Jack’s reflections on the home he never really cared for in the first place: “The roof, the house, and your mother at the door / The roof, the house, and the world you never dreamed you’d get to see.” There are some difficult notes in this song to sing, and they stoop as low as the roots of the stalk in which they are found. The song’s preoccupations with “wish[ing] that you might live in between” may speak as much to Lady Bird as it does to Danny Hedges, who does a great job on the tune.
Lord knows Lady Bird longs to be out of the house, to be in New York (“where there’s culture”) or at the very least Connecticut. However, the way she understands the geometry of her environment—of her house and even of her own body, Ronan calmly reclining upside down watching TV or sprawled across the couch—indicates that she has as much affection for as she has hate for the world from which she so desperately wants to escape.
For the most part, Lady Bird does feel caged, confined in a location that she perceives to be little and unimportant at this point in her life. Everyone Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle is delivered with razor-like precision, akin to her wit and brilliance, but it also conveys the deep frustration that beats within her. Throughout the film, Lady Bird’s identity and presentation are based on her knowing exactly what she wants, a self-assurance that is both fiery and thrilling to witness. However, just as Gerwig’s Frances Halladay looked in the mirror with uncertainty lurking beneath her smile in Frances Ha, so too does Lady Bird, with the same kind of unsureness occasionally permeating her eyes.
What is in store for Lady Bird in the near future? And what is the future of her relationships, specifically the one she has with her closest friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and the one she has with her mother, in store for her? For Lady Bird and Julie, their friendship, which has been solidified through joint musical auditions, food sharing, and inverted mathematical skills (in that Lady Bird has almost none), Lady Bird’s constant restlessness with her place in the world, and Julie’s access to the finer things in life, begin to rip a hole in their relationship’s foundation. As a result, Lady Bird is forced to associate with wealthy individuals, which exacerbates her state of depression.
However, it is her connection with her mother, Marion, that serves as the film’s central plot device. All of the themes explored in the film—class, femininity, closure, and maturation—return to the relationship she has with her mother. With its fundamental premise about how individuals change/do not change after high school and disillusionment in life, the musical in which Lady Bird is performing is the cult, play-maudit Merrily We Roll Along.
(Do you see a pattern here?) Marion has already experienced it, and Lady Bird is about to do so. Metcalf offers a performance that is astonishing in its harshness and humanity; she has the ability to switch the tone of a scene between sorrow and humor with impeccably precise timing. Marion comes across as severe and unforgiving, but there is a strong sense of love in her. “They have such strong personalities,” says Tracy Letts’ father of his daughter and son. They’re unable to converse, and the scars left by the growing distance between them can be seen in the motions and bodies of each of the characters.
For those who are interested in Lady Bird and Marion, the combination of Gerwig’s writing/directing and the leads’ performances is a lethal cocktail, an explosion of overwhelming, finely tuned fury and frustration, as well as elation, euphoria and disappointment, as well as ambivalence and, yes, confusion. Allowing yourself to let go is something that both Lady Bird and Marion desperately want and don’t want and don’t know how to navigate the complexities of; letting go of pain is difficult to do, and this fact is woven throughout every piece of dialogue and every beautifully edited and composed scene between the two of them. What happens when they’re forced to do it, though?
A insightful picture about how two people deal with their feelings of ambivalence, Lady Bird is nothing short of spectacular. Lady Bird hurts the heart while also lifting the soul in amazing ways, all without allowing its emotions show or swerving into blatant sentimentality on the surface. “All I want is to know what I want,” Cinderella says in Sondheim’s deconstructed version of the classic fairy tale. The film accelerates as Lady Bird and her mother ponder their situation.
Greta Gerwig is the director.
Greta Gerwig is one of the writers.
Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, and Beanie Feldstein star in this film.
The movie was released on November 3rd, 2017,
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