I love it when an opening scene of a movie just perfectly encapsulates what kind of movie you’re about to watch. You only get one shot at a first impression after all and when a feature film is able to come out of the gate swinging with a few minutes of footage that sums up the identity of what’s to come so concisely, well, it’s a real treat to experience. Lady Bird has this kind of opening sequence, one that depicts our lead character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mom Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf) driving home from a visit to a nearby college. We get a chance to see these two united in being captivated by an audiobook recording of John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath but once that’s done, it isn’t long before friction emerges between the two of them.
Right away, Lady Bird’s wants and desires are laid out; she’s tired of her life, she’s tired of living in Sacramento, California, she’s even tired of living in the year 2002. She wants to go somewhere, preferably on the East Coast, where there’s culture and where she can possibly become involved in something bigger than herself. Lady Bird shoots for the stars and never looks back while her more experienced mother recognizes the financial hardships their family is going through and is trying to keep her daughter firmly on the ground. The dialogue they exchange sets the stage for the type of discourse characters will be engaging in for the entire motion picture, specifically, the dialogue hews close to reality but also has a frequently sharp wit to it.
This opening scene concludes with the argument between the two reaching its apex of tension between the two characters before Lady Bird opts to drop out of the whole discussion altogether by just opening her car door and falling out of the automobile while it’s still in motion. It’s a moment that gets a big shocked laugh out of the viewer and ends this introductory sequence with a bang. By the end of this five-ish minute long stretch of cinema, you should be able to determine if Lady Bird is gonna be up your alley or not. For me, Lady Bird was already winning me over and then some by the end of this scene and by the end of the movie, I was as riveted by the whole production as Lady Bird and her Mom were by that audiobook recording of The Grapes of Wrath!
The mother/daughter dynamic seen in the opening sequence of Lady Bird is the crux of the plot that follows, but since we’re seeing this story primarily from Lady Bird’s perspective, that’s far from the only aspect of this characters life that to be put into the spotlight here. We also get to see Lady Bird navigating her private Catholic High School as well as trying to covertly apply for prestigious colleges and developing a crush on theater kid Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges). The writer/director of this project, Greta Gerwig, has been upfront on making this movie as a female-perspective response, of sorts, to the likes of The 400 Blows and Boyhood, and like those two motion pictures, there’s an inescapable sense of naturalism imbued in the entire story.
Though Francois Truffaut and Richard Linklater may have been serving as inspiration points for Gerwig, she certainly comes up with her own identity and personality in writing this feature. Lady Bird feels so much like its own creation, whether it’s in the choice to make it a period piece by way of setting the story in the year of 2002 or, most notably, in the way Lady Bird herself feels like such a singular creation. Instead of inhabiting an archetype or even using an archetype as the starting point and then adding depth to it, Lady Bird is a one-of-a-kind character who doesn’t fit easily into one single High School-based stereotype and why should she? The movie itself is trying to make her a fully fleshed out human being, one with depth and nuance that it’s able to convey so beautifully.
Additionally, it’s fascinating to read that the story is apparently not based on exact events from Greta Gerwig’s own life since there’s a level of specificity to various plot points and character details that feel like they could only come from real life. Replicating reality is such a difficult thing to accomplish in any artistic medium but it’s something Lady Bird is able to do with ease and skill at a shockingly frequent level. As if all of those facets of the writing weren’t good enough already, Greta Gerwig’s screenplay also populates the world of Lady Bird with plenty of memorable side characters who are able to have distinctive personalities without shattering the down-to-Earth aesthetic of the movie. Even characters who just show up for one scene like a college advisor or a convenience store clerk leave a memorable impression on this project.
The various memorable characters are brought to life by a troop of actors who certainly bring their A-game under the direction of Gerwig. Saoirse Ronan, armed with an American accent that sounds incredibly realistic (Ronan herself was raised in Ireland), departs heavily from her past lead roles in Hanna and Brooklyn to portray the titular protagonist and does a phenomenal job in bringing Lady Bird to life. Just the way Ronan is able to hold her own in realistically realized arguments with Laurie Metcalfe’s character is impressive, Ronan’s realistic depiction of a teenager lashing out at their mother just makes each curt word the characters exchange come across as impactful. On a lighter note regarding praise towards Ronan’s performance though, she’s also excellent at selling the various witticisms the character delivers (who knew Saoirse Ronan had such impeccable comedic timing?) and her lived-in chemistry with Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend provides some of the sweetest moments of the entire motion picture.
Tracy Letts, playing Lady Bird’s father, is also an utter delight, Letts is good with handling the characters easygoing and gentle nature while Lucas Hedges is another supporting standout, getting one of the most emotionally impactful scenes of the entire movie. I didn’t even know who this guy was eighteen months ago but he’s managed to reduce me to tears in two different movies over the last eleven months, so, well done Mr. Hedges. But it’s Laurie Metcalfe who really hits the home run of a performance here. In the role of Marion MacPherson, Metcalfe’s performance is maybe the best thing to come out of Lady Bird’s thorough commitment to verisimilitude, I saw so much of my own mother in even just the smallest pieces of body language from Metcalfe while she and Ronan bounce off of one another in such a powerfully realistic way that makes one feel like they’re watching raw documentary footage of a mother/teenage child relationship.
Greta Gerwig’s script and Laurie Metcalfe’s performance combine to make a character ripped straight out of reality itself, it’s nothing short of a tremendous feat. There’s so much in Lady Bird that could be accurately summarized by those three words, “a tremendous feat”. The editing by Nick Houy that serves as a key component of some of the funniest moments of the entire film, that’s certainly one or the way the story subtly makes Lady Bird’s Sacramento hometown feel so lived in and rich with life without distracting from the plot proper. Let’s not forget about the great music cues, especially one particular song chosen for when Lady Bird and her best friend are sobbing over emotional hardship that is such a 2002 song that it hurts. Or how about…oh Lord, I’m just gonna be rambling if I keep going on and on about the untold ways Lady Bird flourishes as a film and this review is already quite long as it is! Suffice it to say, Lady Bird is a phenomenal movie and one I could have kept on watching for eons. This is the kind of captivating cinema we don’t get very often, so like chances to appreciate what your parents have done for you, so cherish gems like Lady Bird in the rare times that they come along.