“Lady Bird” and the paradoxes of maturity

With the Oscars all handed out, it’s just about time to bid 2017 film year adieu. However, I couldn’t let the celebration of film year pass by writing about Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” Although nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Screenplay, Gerwig’s 90-minute solo-directorial debut went home empty handed after the Oscar ceremony last Sunday but the film’s emotional thrust and narrative empathy set it up for years of being remembered. And yet the film is something of a paradox.

“Lady Bird,” which is quick with the quips, has had no struggle finding clips for the months-long awards season. One staple is a scene late in the film where a mother and daughter look for a prom dress. The mother’s tough-love stance waffles between devout care and dismissiveness. In a moment of frustration, she says, “I just want you to be the best version of yourself.” The daughter replies dejectedly, “What if this is the best version?” Beyond its humour (“Lady Bird” is fun and funny throughout its runtime,) the film pokes at the most sensitive parts of our journey to maturity in some complex ways.

At first you might not think so, for “Lady Bird” seems like an especially straightforward film. And, yet, “Lady Bird” can be startlingly and even frustratingly opaque. In a movie year of protagonists defining the nuances of their films (see “Phantom Thread,” “Wonder Woman” or “Darkest Hour”), “Lady Bird” emerges as especially apt. All contradictions – simple yet gnarly, sharp but warm, happy and sad, complex yet clear – within the film are the same contradictions that define and deepen the eponymous Lady Bird at its centre.

Laurie Metcalf (at right) and Saoirse Ronan in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird”

Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a high school student in Sacramento who is deciding on her tertiary education. She is underwhelmed by the relative smallness of her town and yearns for a life of culture somewhere more exciting. Her family is struggling to make ends meet, her stern mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) is fraying at the edges visibly, her nice-guy dad (Tracy Letts) also, but less obviously. Across the last few months of school, it all seems to come to a head alongside Lady Bird’s flirtations with romance, the threats to a long standing friendship, the malaise of being unfulfilled, and the potential banality of family life. This all sounds very standard and it might also sound quite linear but linearity is not quite what “Lady Bird” is after. There are many things that are immediately impressive about the film, but the most is Gerwig’s (she writes and directs) ability to arrange brief, seemingly arbitrary scenes in a sequence that’s specific and propulsive.

Because “Lady Bird” is so simple, and sometimes so easy, it does not seem to force our attention like something that’s more notably arcane, but in its 90-minute runtime every scene, every act in “Lady Bird” sets up a complication that has some pay off. My favourite minor one is the musical cue of a song by the Dave Matthews Band that provides three different emotional climaxes throughout. The film is paying attention to its narrative and to its characters. The first scene in the film begins with Lady Bird and her mother listening to John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” – a great depression era tale about a man who must leave his home to find his way, aided by his practical mother and somewhat downtrodden father. It’s the same paradox again. The reference is subtle (it’s such a literary moment, you might not bother reading into it any textual significance) and yet so obvious when you think of it. It’s a duality that marks film.

We never learn why Christine calls herself “Lady Bird.” She insists, it is her given name (“It was given to me by me,” she says early on). In keeping with the film’s paradoxes, she is both frustratingly narcissistic and incredibly sympathetic. “Lady Bird” and its attention to female (but not only female) perspectives means that this teen girl protagonist is afforded the sort of psychological depth that often tends to only be explored in older male protagonists. Each of her conflicting moods and actions meld to create the singular entity of the character, and – essential to the success – the film does not judge here

Usually when films are being non-judgmental of characters’ flaws, they stand back, in a move towards objectiveness that seems too distant. Gerwig embraces her characters, though, so that their foibles seem essential parts of a package deal. This is no more emphasised than in the mother-daughter paradigm that sustains the film. Amidst Lady Bird’s flirtations with popularity, unavailable boys, new friendships and the usual things that come with the peculiar form of teenaged ennui, the larger macro arc of the film concerns her contentious relationship with her mother, which, at first, seems like the most typical of mother/daughter fights but settles into something that’s tough and difficult to extrapolate, but something familiar. The way that petty resentments against the ones we love manifest themselves in petty meanness to those same persons. Metcalf gives the film’s most complicated performance, playing Marion as a woman who borders on stoic around her daughter but reveals deft warmth and grace everywhere else. At first, it perplexes, but in the brief runtime, Gerwig (along with her actors) are able to establish Marion’s complication, which is so familiar. The need to show strength for those we care for can sometimes manifest itself in never showing our vulnerability. And so for Marion and Lady Bird, emotions are seen as weaknesses, and in the face of perceived weakness they both act out a stoic, cold dance around each other that is both funny and sad, both rewarding and complicated to watch. It’s the kind of paradox that the film is able to make us believe that the two can move from the two laughingly crying over a moving piece of art to raised voices and Lady Bird jumping out of a moving car.

I keep thinking of the film’s runtime because beyond the family unit, the film’s characters seem corporeal, and tough, and real like anyone in a ten-episode television series. The film’s simple aesthetic belies complexities in its framing; Gerwig loves her group shots and the film is edited with incisiveness so that nothing ever feels accidental or peripheral. I’m unsurprised and yet disappointed “Lady Bird” never saw a Guyanese release. The desire for a teenager to move from their hometown only to realise its value has a West Indian tinge to it that anyone in this region who has ever moved away will recognise. The film is Gerwig’s quasi-biography of her life and a tribute to her small hometown. It’s bathed in nostalgia but not sentiment. And Lady Bird’s specific journey becomes a stand-in for anyone who watches the film. Confronting the fallibility in your parents is the hardest journey any child will ever go through, but we come out on the other side better and more empathetic for it. The film leans into the complications, the conflicts, the counterintuitive characteristics of growing up, and it’s that willingness to allow for paradoxes that establishes its value.

Lady Bird has just arrived on multiple streaming services this week. It’s available to rent or buy from iTunes, Google Play Movies, Amazon Instant Video and Vudu.

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