Lady Bird

                       

            We open with a mother and daughter listening to an audio book in the car.  Both are obviously emotional characters, because both have tears streaming down their cheeks.  But then when the audiobook is off, mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and daughter Christine (Saoirse Ronan) begin their staccato bickering, which feels so familiar that the viewer senses they probably rehearse it regularly.

            And that's a shame, because we want to like both characters.  Marion is a stressed-out Mom whose college-graduate son is back living with them, along with his girlfriend, whose parents don't approve of their live-in arrangement.  Marion's husband has just been laid off from his programming job, and has entered that fragile, poignant arena where fifty-ish males realize that everybody wants to hire younger.  They just didn't expect to be such dinosaurs before they were actually ready to be put out to pasture.  Marion is so stressed she's working two shifts at her job as a nurse in a psychiatric clinic, and also trying to cope with the inelegant teenage awkwardness of Christine, who has decided she wants everybody to call her Lady Bird.  Marion is not in a mood to indulge something so frivolous, not to mention back-handedly insulting. (What, they name they chose for her isn't good enough?)

            Alas, Marion's high stress mostly translates to Lady Bird as disapproval.  And that's just close enough to the mark to hurt.  Because as much as Lady Bird desires her independence, she also desperately seeks parental approval, and is getting precious little of that from her Mom.  Turning to quiet, genial Dad, Larry (Tracy Letts) helps somewhat, but he's also unwilling to stand up to Mom, even to defend Christine from the relentless harping criticism.

            But we really want to like Lady Bird, because she's still trying to find her way, and she makes mistakes, and sometimes she doesn't use good judgment, and sometimes she doesn't read people right, but she's got a good heart.  Her first “boyfriend,” whom she met while trying out for the school musical, seems perfect:  attentive, funny, smart, affirming, sensitive.  Somehow it doesn't occur to her why he might not be that interested in sexually advancing the relationship.  Lady Bird complains to her Mom that she doesn't need to go to private school.  Actually she's ambivalent about all the religious rituals; she conforms naturally to them, but she questions their veracity.  (Mother Superior is at least intelligent and perceptive, and even a little sympathetic.)

            Lady Bird wants to get far away from Sacramento, California, and go to the East Coast for college.  Preferably New York City.  But her parents' financial situation makes that dream seem unlikely.  She tries to get “in” with the popular crowd by dating a cynical musician, but he lies to her, and really doesn't care about anyone else, anyway, including her.  So she winds up going to prom with her old best friend, needing to work through recent awkwardness and spiteful things said in heated moments.

            Yes, it's a “coming of age” story, but with lots of lurching and sputtering along the way.  Lady Bird is not a physical beauty.  But she can be alternately lively, irreverent, caustic, affectionate, sullen, candid, sensitive, vulnerable, saucy, and determined.  Sometimes all in the same day.  Writer and Director Greta Gerwig turns out  to have both a deft touch and a listener's insight.  We hope for more from her.

 

Questions for Discussion:

1)                  What's your most vivid memory of high school?

2)                  What did you think was important then that you don't now?

3)                  What did you think was not important then, but you were wrong about that?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Associate