Lady Bird: A rewarding coming-of-age story that’s unusually warm and deep

I suppose you’ll have to know a bit about Sacramento to truly appreciate Lady Bird. There are apparently huge billboards of Lady Bird in the city now, and its people, it is reported, are fiercely protective about this film. You can see why. The film breathes the scent of the city, its habits and quirks, its people. Some knowledge about Sacramento would make you fully get what Christine/Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) means when she talks about getting emotional as she drives into the city. Her strongest relationship in the film – apart from with her family, of course — is with the city. That’s why, towards the end, when an out-of-towner asks her where she’s from, she pauses, and answers, “San Francisco.” If you thought she’s ashamed of belonging there, you’d be wrong. Sacramento is too personal, too private for her to be telling strangers about it.

I’ve never been there myself, and Lady Bird makes a pretty strong case for why I should be. The film’s a paean to the city, its diversity of life. It’s a coming-of-age film that sketches out a most meaningful but tumultuous year in the life of Christine, as she learns about love and lovemaking, real and fake friendships, and above all, herself.

Lady Bird
Director: Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges

Saoirse Ronan, who’s got herself an Academy Award-nomination for her performance, plays the feisty but tender Christine beautifully  — with all her faults. Writer-director Greta Gerwig makes sure that regardless of how selfish, how entitled, how arrogant and rude Christine is, you don’t ever stop liking her. She can’t stand to be in the presence of her overbearing mother (the impressive Laurie Metcalf, who gets you bawling in one devastatingly powerful scene at the end), but still never forgets that she is much loved by her. Every time her boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges) talks about how hateful her mother is, Christine rushes to her defence. This mother-daughter relationship is at the very heart of this film, and you see why Greta’s working title for the film was Mothers and Daughters. Christine herself takes after her mother. Her father (Tracy Letts) indicates as much when he says, “You both have such strong personalities.” Perhaps one scene as Christine and mum go shopping for a thanksgiving party best sums up their relationship. Christine picks out a pink dress and looks self-satisfied, when her mother quips, “Isn’t it too pink?” This leads to an argument as Christine wishes that her mother would like her, for once, and the latter says that all she wants is for her to be the best version of herself. And then… that’s it. The scene ends, and they are shown to move on with their everyday routines. They can’t stand to be together, and yet, they cannot stop loving each other. Perhaps you could say that it mirrors their own feelings about themselves.

Like in any well-written story, Lady Bird, while about the life of Christine, isn’t at the expense of its fringe characters, who all register rather strongly. Her father, who struggles with depression. Her brother, Miguel, who lives in with his girlfriend. Her friend, Julie. It’s the sort of film you’d have a tough time explaining to a friend. There are so many terrific individual moments — tender, funny, and sometimes, both at once. You couldn’t narrate them all. You’d miss the moment when Christine’s dad tells her that her mom loves her a lot, and quickly follows it up with, “Don’t tell her I told you.” You’d miss that scene when Christine asks to buy a book so she can read something on her bed, and her mother says, “That’s for rich people.” You’d likely forget to talk about the sports coach who lets out a yelp of triumph when he realises that his awkward training has created something beautiful. In a sense, you could say this of Christine’s parenthood too. In perhaps the best example of the film’s great writing, Christine, when asked about her incisive writing about Sacramento, says, “I don’t know if I love it. I guess I just paid a lot of attention.” The nun she’s talking to, says, “Perhaps it’s the same thing.”

Lady Bird has many of the tropes usually associated with coming-of-age films. The bittersweet seventeen trope, as Christine, cleaning up her room, comes to grips with the impending end of her childhood. The first experiences with drugs. The rite-of-passage sex scene. A coming-out story angle. The return-to-the-real-friend trope. The tropes aren’t the surprise; the depth of the writing is. In an early scene, Christine talks about her hatred of being alone. Eventually, it comes true, and yet, she knows she’ll never be truly lonely, so long as she can remember her family and its love, never mind all the economical and interpersonal strife. If Gabriel Garcia Marquez had written this story, he’d have called it Love in the Times of Suffering.

This review was written for Cinema Express, the cinema division of The New Indian Express. All copyrights belong to the organisation. Do link to its page if you’d like to share it.

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