“People call themselves by names their parents made up for them, but won’t believe in God.”
In the 95 minute running time of Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut “Ladybird”, more growth and evolution of the human condition is shown than in some 3 hour long epics, or television dramas that go on long enough to reach syndication. Each small revelation celebrated by Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) comes across as genuine, earned, never creeping into the overly sentimentalized cute arena of a Wes Anderson clone. Instead, we are treated to sincere moments, and honest characters who feel like they are breathing on the screen.
Greta already feels like she is a seasoned veteran after working closely with Director Noah Baumbach on three films, two of which she co-wrote and starred in. For her directorial debut, Greta steps behind the camera completely, not even taking a cameo sized acting role. Giving the film her full attention, she delivers a richly textured film that should find itself at the top of the award talk this year.
At the center of the film is a mother/daughter relationship that is stunning in its honesty. Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf) is a no nonsense psychiatric nurse. Working double shifts, she has no time for pleasantries, or protecting the feelings of those around her. She isn't a cold character without love, though. When the time presents itself, Marion focuses her attention completely on Christine. This isn’t the story of a neglected “latch key” kid. Marion, like the majority of parents with a 17-year-old child, is just as afraid for the future as her daughter is. The film succeeds on so many levels because it allows it’s characters to have complex emotions and motivations, and it also earns its humor through it.
Lady Bird has parents who genuinely love her, but things are not perfect or easy in this film. Larry McPherson (Tracy Letts) is one of the greatest fathers ever written into a film, and has been out of work for some time. Laid off from a company he had been with for many years in favor of youth, he proactively went out and got his MBA to compete for employment with the younger generation. This proves to be more difficult than expected. This form of repacement is a frightening reality for people of Larry’s generation, and it is reflected well here. Economic hardships being a reality for the characters is a refreshing change. The audience isn’t wondering how the family affords Hollywood reality on a middle class salary like far too many films flying in and out of Cineplexes. The McPherson’s have the same real world problems as many of the people who the film was made for, and has the same empathy for its audience as we have for its characters. That empathy is crucial to the film, as learning to empathize is central to Christine’s growth in the film. She learns to appreciate, and to look at the world outside of herself.
Aside from a fantastic family dynamic relationship, Christine’s life is filled with other wonderful characters. Her best friend Julie, brilliantly played by Beanie Feldstein, is the friend everyone wishes they’d had in High School. She is loyal to a fault, and hysterically funny. The Sacred Heart girl’s academy they attend is fully brought to life by its inhabitants. The introduction to the different groups, cliques, and teachers rivals “Mean Girls” for its ingenuity, but it is done without voiceover; letting the characters breathe in a more naturalistic environment. They don’t present the teachers or nuns in the school in an overly authoritarian way, as is the usual trope. These nuns may be “married to Jesus”, but they get to be fully-fledged human beings with wonderful senses of humor as well.
The level of respect given to each character, and their place in the world is admirable, and something I wish existed more often in film. In a time where it seems like every film coming out is a sequel, remake, or comic book movie, it’s wonderful to see a movie like “Lady Bird” succeeding. We need more of these, and less Justice League in the world. See this in the theater, see this with your girlfriend, see this with your mother. Hell, go and see this with your grandmother. It’s rated R, but the subject matter is appropriate for a 13 year old. It’s never too early to learn a little empathy. A+