Lost in the Movies: Lady Bird

Lady Bird

The story opens in New York - a city of new beginnings. It is the fall of 2003, and the disorienting shocks of the early decade have already settled into the uneasy pangs of the mid-decade. Against this backdrop our heroine (Saoirse Ronan) arrives for her first semester of college, dragging her suitcases out of the subway and staring up in awe at the skyscrapers. She came from somewhere else, but where she came from hardly matters - at a loud dorm room party she tells a boy she's from Sacramento but when he shouts "Where?" she changes her answer to "San Francisco." And she hesitates before giving her name, Christine; somehow, it seems like she's offering an introduction not just to the boy or to the audience but to herself. "Christine" - innocuous, ordinary, allowing her to blend in with the flock of eager, nervous new students, a blank slate from which to start anew. We've probably seen this film before, if not as a film than as a TV show or a memoir or a more formless cultural narrative riding the circuit in millennial media. The cast of this journey consists of other hip young people, the milieu is urban, and the trajectory is upwards despite bumps along the road.

Only after falling violently ill (she pukes as soon as she kisses the other partygoer), spending the night in a hospital, and seeking out the comfort of a Catholic church the next morning, does Christine's facade crumble and a sturdier foundation emerge. Christine may be her given name, but Lady Bird is the name she gave herself (as she once declared at a casting call for her Catholic school play); even if she's abandoning the quirky moniker, its legacy lingers. She lied about being from San Francisco, of course: the first answer was her real hometown and she's only now realizing how much Sacramento contributed to her identity. Most importantly, Christine/Lady Bird isn't the only one to tell a fib - I've lied too. This isn't actually how Lady Bird begins. This is how it ends.

Or is this moment as much a beginning as an end after all? In Realizing Lady Bird, a short behind-the-scenes documentary on the film's production, writer/director Greta Gerwig acknowledges that her work on the screenplay kicked off with this final sequence. Part of the film's richness is the way the whole New York sequence works as a hinge, the conclusion to one narrative and the initiation of another. That second narrative could consist of whatever we imagine Lady Bird's - or Christine's? - future to hold (maybe it looks something like the Gerwig-penned Frances Ha, given both films' autobiographical aspects and Frances Ha's back-for-the-holidays Sacramento sequence). However, it's probably more fruitful to consider the second narrative as moving backward rather than forward. It consists of the same movie we just saw, only now cast in the light of a longing, bittersweet nostalgia, wiser with the passage of time and warmer now that the protagonist isn't struggling to escape but has already escaped, and is looking back over her shoulder. Ultimately, Lady Bird is two films at once: a loose, present-tense, adolescent portrait and a coming-of-age memoir embedded in the past. Structuring the film around a single year, from Sacramento high school senior to New York college freshman, offers a sense of compelling cohesion, and the decision to make it a period piece evokes a mood that only distance can provide.

The way the film actually unfolds is through a series of episodes, a handful of standalone sketchlike scenes (some of which, like a teacher's admission of depression, or a father and son running into each other at a job interview, detour from Lady Bird's own trajectory) alongside many more loosely-connected moments. Those moments fulfill various threads and arcs connecting Lady Bird to other characters: her rocky yet solid friendship with the sweet, soulful Julie (Beanie Feldstein); her brief, doomed bout of camaraderie with the rich, popular Jenna (Odeya Rush); her romances with the kind Danny (Lucas Hedges), who turns out to be gay, and the hip Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), who turns out to be a prick. Holidays and important events are marked in the unchanging Californian weather: Lady Bird spends Thanksgiving at Danny's (she likes his grandmother's stately home so much, she lies to Jenna about it being her own) and heads off to prom with Kyle and Jenna but leaves them behind to visit Julie's apartment and take her to prom instead. By the end of the year, so much has happened - from a disappointing loss of virginity to the catastrophic Iraq invasion (when Kyle objects to her sadness about the former by bringing up the latter, she snaps, "Different things can be sad - it's not all war!"). Even before that New York coda, we feel as if the beginning of the movie is separated by a yawning, impassable chasm.

The overarching elements that remain through the ebbs and flows of the other subplots are Lady Bird's longing to get out of Dodge (maybe I knew too much going in, but the question of whether she'd making it to the East Coast never felt particularly charged with suspense) and her contentious relationship to her blunt, nagging mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). A hard-working nurse who is frustrated by Lady Bird's inability to glimpse the bigger picture, Marion often fights with her daughter (they are barely on speaking terms for the film's final act) but they are also frequent companions; their estrangement is due if anything to over-proximity rather than emotional let alone physical distance. Gerwig manages to convey both the source of Lady Bird's frustration and the hurt and anxiety motivating her mother's behavior. She's particularly attuned to the economic circumstances underpinning the family dynamic: mother Marion is often in scrubs, commuting to and from her stressful job back to a home life that feels like even more work; father Larry (Tracy Letts) is unemployed in late middle age and depressed at his prospects; brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) got into city college but is now working at a grocery store, and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) shares space in the McPhersons' cramped house well into their twenties. Lady Bird seeks a high-profile scholarship as a romantic moonshot, but Marion would rather she find a sturdy if humble ladder out of precarity. The various episodes of Lady Bird's senior year are strung along the lines of these dramatic tensions.

Gerwig presents the collection of scenes - both the standalones and the components of larger arcs - with a light touch but enough grounding to keep them from feeling too slight or arch, and she deftly manages the flow and accumulation of material (one minor quibble is that the sharp cuts can feel a bit forced as a punctuation; otherwise the movie is remarkably graceful and assured for a solo debut). She also effectively evokes a mood and atmosphere through her work with cameraman Sam Levy. In a decision that Gerwig discusses in the documentary, the photography is never too mannered yet always quietly artful, a love letter to Sacramento's low-key charm that avoids prettifying it too much. Stylistically, the millennial Lady Bird evokes, from a safe distance, the Generation X auteurs who shaped the cinematic moment in which the film is set, paying tribute to Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, and Gerwig's own frequent collaborator/partner Noah Baumbach without falling into an overly mannered pastiche. Lady Bird feels much less indebted to the movement from which Gerwig herself directly emerged - the aggressively lo-fi and improvisational mumblecore movies of the mid-to-late zeroes - but the contours of those works, too, can be traced beneath this film's smoother surface. In particular, there is an arresting awkwardness to the dialogue and a comedic self-consciousness to the performances of the characters (as opposed to the actors) which signify, perhaps, as much Gerwig's gift to those earlier films as her inheritance from them.

In this light, Ronan's casting is one of Lady Bird's most distinctive, perhaps surprising, choices. On page, the character is frequently unsympathetic, especially in the early parts of the movie (her maturation is as much about learning humility as accumulating experiences): cruel toward her brother, domineering toward Julie, and unappreciative of her mother, although Marion, granted, doesn't always make it easy. Had Gerwig been able to rewind a decade and cast herself, Lady Bird would probably seem much more disarming, projecting a winsome gawkiness and good-natured self-doubt to efface her attempts at egotistical assertion. Ronan, however, is a more intense, taciturn performer, forcing us to warm more slowly to the character (if we do at all; I recall some takes upon the film's release which suggested that Julie would have been a much more deserving protagonist). Ronan is excellent in a complicated role that requires mercurial uncertainty, but my favorite performance is probably Metcalf's. Unlike her teenage child, Marion knows exactly who she is, but that doesn't mean she isn't plagued by doubts, anxiety, and complexities, all of which a sensitive Metcalf and sympathetic Gerwig allows us to glimpse even when Lady Bird doesn't. (One of the film's most effective departures from the title character's point of view occurs when a weeping Marion races back to the airport after dropping her daughter off in a brusque manner, too late to properly bid her farewell.) There are films where you don't really want to know the characters' secrets (think Lost in Translation), and that's effective in its own right, but I love that I was compelled to revisit and actually read the briefly-glimpsed shots of the abandoned letters Marion composed for Lady Bird, forwarded by her understanding father.

Lady Bird's sensitive attention to ensemble and milieu composes what might be called the horizontal plane of the film's appeal, its broad warmth and eclectic humanity, with the aforementioned structure and period distance constructing a thoughtful, self-conscious plane as a counterpoint. I'm particularly interested in a couple ways that Gerwig - a bit like Lady Bird in the final sequence - playfully elides her own history to shape our perception of Lady Bird both onscreen and off. First of all, the film comes quite close to duplicating the exact time and space of Gerwig's own coming-of-age (leaving Sacramento for New York in the early zeroes) with one seemingly minor alteration. Gerwig graduated from high school in 2002, while Lady Bird graduates in 2003. I have to admit I'm particularly attuned to this subtle shift because I graduated high school (and moved to New York) in '02 and the distance between being a high school senior in 2001-02/college freshman in 2002-03 and being a high school senior in 2002-03/college freshman in 2003-04 have some profound implications. I'd be quite fascinated to hear why Gerwig chose to move her character to the Class of '03; my guess is that on the one hand she wanted the Iraq invasion to occur as Lady Bird grows into adulthood and that on the other hand, she didn't want to have the immediate aftermath of 9/11 overshadow the start of Lady Bird's senior year.

I watched the film through my own quasi-bittersweet nostalgic haze spurred not just by the memory of being a teenager filled with anticipation in 2002, but also for my much later spell in California, now a few years in the past (the film is eager to remind us that Sacramento is nearly as distant culturally from Los Angeles as it is from New York, but from an East Coast perspective it doesn't seem so terribly far from Pasadena). Yet that minor displacement in time has its disorienting effect: patriotic "never forget" decals fade both literally and figuratively rather than evoking a fresh, raw national trauma and news of war reaches a teen still stuck in the world of their childhood rather than a young adult just launched out into a confusing world. For me, there was a slight divergence while viewing, as I began the film more closely synced to Lady Bird's place in time only to watch it branch off into something more unfamiliar and displaced, like I was watching an alternate universe unfold. I would have to imagine that Gerwig felt somewhat similarly as she wrote and shot the film, and wonder if she purposefully separated the character in this way in order to gain an outsider's perspective on a life clearly so close to her own. This gesture may have helped clarify the wiser, more mature narrative voice that hovers behind Lady Bird's adolescent angst, that slight distance of one year poignantly suggesting the much greater distance of a decade and a half.

The other re-invention that Gerwig engages in occurs not in the film but in the interview accompanying the main feature on the blu-ray; Gerwig describes Lady Bird as her directorial debut, language that many discussions of the film have echoed. This is her first solo venture, and her first production in a traditional, professional vein but in fact, Gerwig co-directed the mumblecore video romance Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg in 2008 (I reviewed the film a year later). A film whose awkwardness is both an inevitable function of its improvisational method and an intentional aesthetic decision to depict the flustered disconnections of its characters (played by the two writers/directors), Nights and Weekends is as messy as Lady Bird is fully-formed. In interviews from 2008 and 2018, Gerwig has suggested reasons for brushing past the film, despite her apparent pride in the work, in order to eventually focus on Lady Bird as her auteurist breakthrough. In the earlier interview, she reflects, "That's like a beast of a film, it was very hard to make. It's very hard to watch, for me. But people really, really like it, which is good. But also bad, 'cause when it's hard to make something, you almost wish people would hate it, because it took so much of me to make. And you're like, 'I sacrificed so much to make it, I almost hope you can hate it.' But then, you also want them to like it because you did sacrifice so much."

In the later interview, Gerwig acknowledges her debut with the caveat, "Well, that movie was not really written but more devised and improvised. It was tiny the way we made them. That was a wonderful tool in terms of learning how films are put together and what you need to make a movie." She goes on to cite the evolution of her craft through her collaborations with Baumbach, blossoming into the lengthy script for Lady Bird and the sense of an avocation finally fulfilled as she pivoted from writer to director, the culmination of a long-building process: "I got to draw on all experience that I had and the work that I'd done in learning to make movies." There's an affecting parallel with Lady Bird herself here; in addition to the wise maturity she brings to the film, that loving if occasionally exasperated understanding of a younger character, Gerwig also matches Lady Bird's own yearning for self-conscious construction and achievement, an ability to assemble the raw material of her experience into a plausible narrative of which the present is the inevitable, triumphant outcome.

Of course, the present isn't simply a final outcome. It's a beginning as well as an end. Lady Bird concludes at the very moment the title character expected her life to begin, but the door that closes for the character onscreen is opened for her creator behind the camera.

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