Though the common perception is that we watch movies in order to escape, the practice inherently runs much deeper than that. Yes, we watch movies to drop out of reality. We also, however, watch movies to find ourselves. Sitting in a dark theater, emotions run deeper as though the art is shouting out at you. Not all films hold this power; in fact, with the advent of online streaming and phenomenal TV series flooding the market, it has somehow become rarer and rarer to find those true cinematic gems that stop you in your tracks upon first viewing. Greta Gerwig, the thirty-four year old wunderkind director, has achieved that reaction with her recently-released film Lady Bird.
Largely inspired by Gerwig’s own youth, the film follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s senior year of high school in Sacramento, California. Stuck in an unexciting and ever-restrictive Catholic school with limited outlet for creativity, Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan, undergoes the highs and inescapable lows of being a teenager. She falls in love. She has tantrums. She dreams of being somewhere fantastic, pulsating with life.
What sets the film apart, other than its brilliant cast of characters and superb performances, is the central relationship of Lady Bird and her mother, played by Laurie Metcalfe. Their two personalities clash ceaselessly throughout the film as Lady Bird feels penned in by her mother’s expectations. While Lady Bird is clearly desperate for her mother’s approval, Mrs. McPherson fails to cut her passionate daughter any slack. Probably because she bears the weight of keeping her family above water after her husband loses his job. Nonetheless, to hold the young to a standard of such maturity is unfair. Lady Bird has a big heart undoubtedly, yet she spins out of control time and time again simply because she stands at the precipice of youth with all its resplendent uncertainty.
While the film dips from one phase of Lady Bird’s senior year to the next in a fashion almost like a “greatest hits” compilation of that time in any teenager’s life, nothing about the storyline is disingenuous. It all feels real, purposeful.
More than purposeful, however, the film also lends each and every character a uniqueness and likability. Gerwig was clearly unafraid to blur the lines of stereotypes such as “the popular girl,” “the bad boy,” and “the first boyfriend” while writing the film. There are cracks in each and every facade, so much so that, as a viewer, you find yourself empathizing with most of, if not all, the characters on screen. The popular girl is shallow, yet also has a seemingly abiding love for her hometown and the desire to raise a family exactly as she was raised. Be that good or bad, it’s honest. The bad boy Lady Bird finds herself in a relationship with is unfeeling and harsh, yet even in his most unlikable moments he is so much more than a mere angsty, villainous youth.
While superheroes, thrillers, and outrageous action are all well and good, there is often a void of honest, well-written movies that carry their truth steadily from beginning to end. Head to the theater to watch Lady Bird and bear this in mind. At least one of the characters, I’ll bet, will look remarkably like your youth.
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