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Fresh, female outlook on teenage angst

Tale focuses on the trials and tribulations of mom and daughter

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 17/11/2017 (931 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Radiant, revelatory and resolutely female, this coming-of-age story feels fresh and necessary, especially in these difficult days.

When Greta Gerwig came onto the indie film scene as an actor, she was viewed first as a loose-limbed comedic muse to the Mumblecore movement and later as a leading lady for art-house directors like Noah Baumbach.

As much as I love Gerwig’s sunny, grounded presence as a screen actor, her assured solo directorial debut demonstrates why we need women to get behind the camera.

In what could be seen as a loosely autobiographical story, Gerwig explores the lives of girls and women with a sweet, but unsentimental eye.

The results are funny, moving and lovely.

Gerwig’s teenaged character (the remarkable Saoirse Ronan, Oscar-nominated for her work in Brooklyn and Atonement) has taken the name Lady Bird over the name her parents gave her, a rejection her mother, Marion McPherson (the miraculous Laurie Metcalf), takes personally. Everything is personal in this close, fraught, intermittently furious mother-daughter relationship.

Lady Bird and Marion’s similarities are often more divisive than their differences.

That’s another reason why Gerwig’s perspective feels so urgent. The father-son bond has been done to death at the movies. (These days even Marvel supervillains get daddy issues.) The ties between mothers and daughters, on the other hand — in which vastly complicated emotions get channelled into the issue of hanging up clothes or the subtle semiotics of dress shopping — have been overlooked.

Merie Wallace / A24</p><p>Saoirse Ronan (left) and Laurie Metcalf showcase a complicated mother-daughter dynamic in Lady Bird.</p></p>

Merie Wallace / A24

Saoirse Ronan (left) and Laurie Metcalf showcase a complicated mother-daughter dynamic in Lady Bird.

The broad outlines of Lady Bird’s story are recognizable. In her senior year at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, amid all the middle-class American rituals of extra-curriculars and college applications, she tests limits.

She eats unconsecrated communion wafers and questions anti-abortion guest speakers.

Gerwig imbues this familiar teen angst with closely detailed, often-hilarious specifics.

Take a scene that a less observant film might have tried to pass off as a sexual awakening: Gerwig makes it absolutely clear this is not a sexual awakening, as Lady Bird finds the whole experience vaguely disappointing.

She hoped her first time would be special, Lady Bird tells the jerky popular boy she’s with, though he can’t really see why. "You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life," he points out. The film is also unusual in dealing square-on with socio-economic issues, financial insecurity being a constant thrumming presence in the McPherson household.

While Lady Bird’s teen rebellion seems at first to resemble the old story of an exceptional youth chafing against an ordinary upbringing, Gerwig offers a larger, less self-obsessed perspective.

Lady Bird talks about wanting to leave stultifying Sacramento for college in cool, cultured New York. Marion, a double-shift-working psychiatric nurse trying to hold the family together in the face of her husband’s job loss, sees these aspirations as a reproach to their ability to provide. We can see that her anger at Lady Bird’s need to escape is also panic.

Near the end of the film, a nun, Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), observes that Lady Bird has written about Sacramento, which she claims to despise, with such detail and care that it becomes a kind of love.

Maybe love and attention are the same thing, Sister Sarah Joan gently suggests, essentially handing us the key to Gerwig’s film.

In Lady Bird, ordinary life is transfigured by its writer-director’s close, clear-eyed and compassionate attention.


Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Read full biography


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