Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is a perfect portrayal of both sides of coming of age
Tonight (January 7), Lady Bird took the prize for Best Musical Or Comedy at the 2018 Golden Globes, beating fellow acclaimed works The Disaster Artist, Get Out, The Greatest Showman, and I, Tonya to the trophy. Saoirse Ronan, who plays the titular role, also took home the award for Best Actress In A Musical Or Comedy, and both couldn’t be more deserving wins.
You may have heard recently that Greta Gerwig‘s directorial debut was briefly the highest-rated movie in the history of Rotten Tomatoes. Some spoilsport went and gave it its first negative review shortly after that news broke, taking it back down to 99 percent instead of a perfect 100, but that critic can’t stop the rest of the world from seeing the truth – Lady Bird is the perfect coming-of-age film.
Sacramento teen Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is in her final year of high school, and is about to begin applying to colleges. The ends of her hair are a faded pink, the remnants of an old DIY dye job. She has a pink cast on her right arm – the result of throwing herself out of a moving car during an argument with her mother (Laurie Metcalf). Throughout the film, she is a character that bounces from strong and determined, to naive and childlike. She is invincible, but vulnerable – a classic, complicated teenager.
What makes Lady Bird so perfect? Try everything from the cast’s performances, to the soundtrack (hello, Justin Timberlake and Alanis Morissette). The big victories, though, come in the characters and storylines that Gerwig has built. One of the many things the movie gets right is that period of your life when you’re trying to figure out exactly who you are – how fickle and flighty it is, how intense carving out your own character can be. Lady Bird dreams of “living through something” and being “where culture is”. She lies about who she is to popular girls she wants to be friends with, and pretends to know more than she does to impress boys she fancies. She ditches one identity for another as easily and quickly as she tries on dresses for her prom. Even her alter-ego is an attempt to find the person that she really is.
There are several refreshing things about the story Gerwig weaves in the film. In what she says was an unconscious move, she rejects the idea that there is only one right guy for a woman at one time. Crushes don’t fit into neat boxes of time that never overlap – that Lady Bird finds a boy other than her boyfriend attractive doesn’t make her bad, it just makes her human. Gerwig (and Ronan in playing her) gives her autonomy and agency – she doesn’t make her wait for the boy to make the first move. She lets her do the lusting, lets her be the one to steer her relationships. Lady Bird has purpose and power, and is more impressive for it.
One of the things about the movie that has provoked the most discussion is the way the women in it fight. Lady Bird and her mum, Marion, can go from sniping at each other to acting like best friends in a flash. They can be hideously cruel to each other, and rarely do we see any apologies. Gerwig has said in interviews that the men she approached to finance the film understood that way of fighting and loving if they had sisters or daughters, but were at a loss if they didn’t. Lady Bird doesn’t gloss over that dynamic between mother and daughter to make things easier or prettier – it presents it as it really is.
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What makes Lady Bird stand out from countless other coming-of-age films, however, is its perspective. “One person’s coming of age is another person’s letting go,” Gerwig has said when promoting the film, and as its teenage protagonist moves towards becoming who she wants to be, we’re also shown her parents’ (particularly her mother’s) struggle to let her go. There’s one scene at the end of the movie where Marion, stony-faced minutes earlier, bursts into tears behind the wheel of her car, overcome by the emotion of her daughter growing up and leaving home. It’s rare for a film to show the flipside of coming of age, but having that other outlook fits with Lady Bird’s own thought process – she might have a stubborn do-what-I-want attitude, but she also goes to great pains to try and minimise the hurt she knows her life decisions will cause her mum.
On a night where women controlled the narrative, it’s apt that Lady Bird was one of the event’s big winners. It’s set a new standard in its genre, and movies in general – one that, as perfection usually is, will be incredibly hard to beat.