Oscar Film Reviews: Lady Bird
By Grace Gay
Walking into Lady Bird, I didn’t know anything about the film beyond my friend describing it as an “artsy coming-of-age story.” I therefore expected another story about a teenager, living in New York, wandering around disillusioned with life: Catcher in the Rye with a bit more third-wave feminism. I’ve never been a huge fan of the more intellectual coming-of-age stories (Boyhood was boring and unremarkable), but I figured I should probably see the work of the only woman Oscar-nominated for Best Director. And Greta Gerwig far from disappointed me-- the coming of age story she tells is refreshing and nostalgic all at once.
Usually, female coming-of-age stories revolve around the girl finally learning to take action. But when the movie begins, Lady Bird, aka Christine, is already the opposite of passive. The opening scene, when she throws herself from the car, establishes her immediately as an active character. All of Christine’s actions are deliberate statements about who she wants to be: picking her own name, extending her hand in reconciliation towards her mother, and even remaking herself to fit in with the popular girl. This kind of purpose in action makes her uniquely inspiring: she does the things that most people aren’t brave enough to do, acting off her true, honest emotions.
The biggest issue with Lady Bird is perhaps Christine’s character arc. Christine is forceful and at home in her own skin from the beginning of the movie onward, making it hard to believe that there’s ever a point where she isn’t going to be okay. She undergoes some changes, learns to appreciate her family and see it in a new way, but she ultimately remains the same person, just letting go of her anger. The real story centers more on the people around her, the way that they interact and change: a refocus of the coming-of-age story on how relationships change as you grow up.
The relationship between Christine and her mother is complex, up there with the mother/child relationship in Ordinary People. Despite their numerous and intense fights, they love and care about each other, without being able to demonstrate that affection. It’s compelling without a doubt, and Laurie Metcalf gives an amazing performance. But the thing about the film that bothered me is that under the surface of a very much a stressed and strained relationship are red flags of emotional abuse, as Christine’s mother continually takes her problems out on her. The ending resolves this conflict almost too easily: Lady Bird accepting her mother’s behavior now that she’s outside of it. While the end rings true for the characters, the handling of the emotionally abusive tones of the relationship is done clumsily and unconsciously, as if the director is unaware of the undercurrent of issues there.
Despite my concerns regarding that relationship, the other people in Lady Bird’s life make this movie as touching and fun as it is. The movie manages to turn the cliches of Christine’s first heartbreaks into delicate, subtle moments where you can feel her conflict and strength, as when she comforts her gay ex-boyfriend. Gerwig’s direction is down to earth and character focused, giving the most time and weight to scenes of quick beats which change the characters' relationships.
By far the most moving moment is when her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), says, “Some people aren't built happy.” My roommate and I both burst out crying. Not because of the tragedy of someone young knowing that sad truth, but because it’s just a poignant, accepting moment where her best friend is sharing and living with her pain, acknowledging it’s okay to not be okay. And that’s the most important message of any coming-of-age story.