It’s been a long time since I’ve felt such an emotional response to a film. I am known to shed light tears occasionally, but Lady Bird has somewhat changed the game. It was during my second viewing of the film that I felt my insides ache as if I had just been punched in the stomach.
Since then, I’ve been able to make better sense of why the 2018 Oscar nominated film has received such a mixed set of reviews. It’s been labelled ‘over-hyped’ at one end of the spectrum to ‘perfection’ at the other.
The film is firmly set in 2002; a newly post-9/11 and pre-smartphone world. It centres on Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson played by Saoirse Ronan in her hometown Sacramento, California. In the film, we follow her attempts to navigate her final year of high-school, boys and her family relationships, particularly with her mother played by Laurie Metcalf.
It’s a personal film. We experience these important milestones at a time of her life which most adults look back on with wistful affection: first relationship (and consequent break-up); finishing school; those conversations about what to do with your future. Coming of age films work best when the audience can project their own lives onto what the protagonist experiences. I’m not as edgy or comedic as Lady Bird, but I still saw parts of her story that I could intimately relate to which drew me in and made me invested in her character and world. It can be said that the diversity of opinion stems from the fact that some audience members haven’t been able to identify with the film, though many have.
The portrayal of the testing yet loving relationship between Lady Bird and her mother has been the focus of multiple reviews. But it was its portrayal of financial hardship and the strain that it can put on family relationships, that I found hit close to home.
After the 2008 recession, just like our protagonist, I was a frequent visitor of second-hand clothes stores and had mini disagreements with my mum as to what I could add to the shopping trolley. Though my mum wasn’t as sharped tongued as Lady Bird’s, I felt a strong sense of bittersweet nostalgia overcome me.
In the film, Lady Bird’s mother is blunt about their multiple financial pressures and is hard on her for not taking more responsibility for her actions. In doing so, this starts to wash away any youthful innocence Lady Bird has left. The tension reaches a climax when Lady Bird challenges her mother to give a number for how much she cost to raise so that she can pay her back in time. Her mother ridicules the idea that she could ever earn that much. Although there’s underlying love between them they find themselves being cruel to one another. It’s a tough yet authentic dynamic which is not often captured so well on screen.
The drama in the film however is masterfully balanced with humour, thanks to writer-director Greta Gerwig. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when the mother gave all the children socks for Christmas and the father, a comedic pillow which said ‘Golfers never diet, they just exist on greens’ followed by an exasperated laugh. I recognised that dynamic of masking difficulty with hopeless optimism and humour all too well. It was somewhat of an oddity sharing something that feels so personal with a character on screen and realising it’s actually more universal than I think.
The performances from the cast were stellar, but I feel Tracey Letts’ portrayal as Larry, Lady Bird’s father has been somewhat overlooked. There’s a scene where Larry discusses refinancing the house in order to pay for Lady Bird’s tuition. I think he gives a remarkable and understated performance. He has this admirable resolve for his daughter despite the implied shame he feels from being unemployed and struggling financially. It was heart-wrenching to see.
Some of my favourite moments in the film were located in the theatre. I would like to request full versions of Lady Bird’s audition and the scenes from their Merrily We Roll Along performance. From the first director’s subtle lament that the audience didn’t understand the production, to the football coach’s hilarious attempt to direct the school performance of The Tempest – it provided a much-welcomed injection of humour.
Watching Lady Bird was like a mirror in which I saw my own up-bringing reflected, something which I don’t always see. It was enjoyable, relatable and I can’t wait to see more of what Greta Gerwig does.