Review: ‘Lady Bird’ is charming, honest and Oscar-worthy

by Sebastian Wurzrainer | 2/27/18 12:00am

It’s hard not to ask what the best film of 2017 was, given that the 90th Academy Awards are less than a week away. But if you’re like me, it’s also surprisingly difficult to settle on a definitive answer. About a year ago, I reviewed “Moonlight” and called it the rare, transcendent cinematic experience that I’m lucky to have even once a year. “Moonlight,” to be clear, was precisely that film for 2016. Yet I had no such similar experience in 2017.

Of course, that’s neither abnormal nor bad. It just makes it a little harder to answer the aforementioned question. As I reread the list of Best Picture nominations, I’m pleased to see that many of them are worthy contenders. “Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “The Shape of Water” — all three are surprising and stellar in their own ways. Last year was also an unusually kind to big-budget, blockbuster franchise spectacles like “Blade Runner 2049,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi,” “Thor: Ragnarok” and “Wonder Woman.”  

However, if you were to demand that I pick a decisive “Best of the Year” film, I’d have to go with Greta Gerwig’s charming, effervescent, brutally heartbreaking “Lady Bird.” Before most people even had a chance to see it, “Lady Bird” had already garnered a reputation as the film that had the highest number of reviews with a perfect rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And while I don’t think it’s perfect and that rating has since dropped a mere one percent, I can also easily see why it touched so many people, myself included. I think my friend and fellow film studies eccentric Victor Wu ’20 summarized it best when he pointed out that we’ve all been one of these characters at some point in our lives. At first glance, that’s a rather odd sentiment given how strange and idiosyncratic the characters in “Lady Bird” are. But it speaks, I think, to the honesty of their portrayals; they feel like real people precisely because they are never reduced to simple stereotypes. 

The protagonist Christina McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento who insists on being called “Lady Bird.” Like most seniors, she’s had it with her school, with her parents, with her town and possibly even with her best friend. She’s desperate to spread her wings and attend a college on the East Coast, although this creates conflict with her mother Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf, with whom she has an intractable love-hate relationship. 

Part of the strange magic of “Lady Bird” is that Gerwig’s screenplay isn’t afraid to make the eponymous protagonist unlikable. Perhaps that’s not entirely fair; a more honest assessment would be that the film feels like it is capturing another reality and, in the process, it never seems to shy away from Lady Bird’s less savory character traits. We get to see all sides of her, both the good and the bad. We spend so much time encouraging the media to include strong, empowered female characters who can serve as valuable role models to a new generation of girls. Yet in the process, we can sometimes forget that women deserve to be written with just as much nuance and pathos. In that regard, Lady Bird and her mother are perfectly feminist — not despite their imperfections, but because of them.

So much of this, of course, comes from the indelible performances by Ronan and Metcalf. Ronan manages to capture, perhaps better than any other actor in a coming-of-age film I’ve seen, that odd juxtaposition in so many teenagers: their simultaneous confidence in their own abilities and their realization that they are utterly lost as they prepare to leave behind the comforts of their adolescence. 

Whereas Ronan really has no chance to win the Oscar when pitted against the undeniable favorite, Frances McDormand for “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri,” I still think Metcalf could be victorious over the Supporting Actress frontrunner, Allison Janney in “I, Tonya.” Janney may chew the scenery, but Metcalf is infinitely subtler and substantially more refined in her evident empathy for such a flawed character. 

Although the film plays up Metcalf and Ronan, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Stephen Henderson and especially Tracy Letts all resonate in smaller parts. They are truly the reason why this film feels so real, why we feel as though we’ve known these characters for so much longer than the run time. Henderson, for example, probably has no more than five minutes of screen time as the school’s drama instructor, yet his character remains one of the most memorable in the entire film. 

In the Dartmouth Film Society, members have had some rather fierce debates as to the merits of Gerwig’s nomination for Best Director. Some have argued that the film isn’t properly cinematic and thus her direction is nothing truly special, while others, like myself, have countered that simply having your name on a film like “Lady Bird” at least warrants Oscar consideration. Yes, “Lady Bird” lacks the overt cinematic flourishes that are more evident in the works of Gerwig’s competition. No, I don’t think she’s solely responsible for how well this film turned out. At the same time, though, she is the director and writer, and thus I’m willing to wager that more of the film’s success can be owed to her than some are willing to give credit for. 

As I mentioned before, “Lady Bird” isn’t perfect. Sometimes its rambling, unstructured narrative further evokes a sense of realism, and sometimes it hurts the film’s cohesion, particularly during the final minutes. Its rewatch value is also fairly dependent on how willing you are to put up with these characters; sometimes they feel too real, and watching them can become painfully uncomfortable. Despite my quibbles, there is no denying that “Lady Bird” is special. Popular cinema loves to focus on father-son dynamics with their incumbent Oedipal anxieties and patriarchal concerns. But mother-daughter relationships are depicted far less often, and as the member of a household with a wonderful yet complicated example of such a dynamic, I can confirm that “Lady Bird” is all the more powerful precisely because of its beautiful combination of the specific and the universal.