Movie Review: Lady Bird.
Coming of age drama/comedy Lady Bird is charming but entirely formulaic.
The press for Lady Bird has been absolutely bonkers. I knew that critics had been talking highly of the film and that it was making great money, but it wasn’t till after I’d seen it that a friend mentioned it has 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. I’m just agog. Could this film be the best movie of the year? Our lifetimes? In the history of cinema? Apparently I missed something, as I found Lady Bird to be an unsurprising trip down the corridors of high school. It has a great cast whose synergy brings a jolt of life to an otherwise conventional teen dramedy.
Lady Bird (2017)
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is a high school senior who longs to leave her quaint Sacremento hometown behind and attend college in New York City. She’s hampered by middling grades, poor family finances, and a controlling mother who is desperate for one of her children to have a level head on their shoulders and just go to a local school. Added into this drama are relationship woes, a school musical, and the familiar high school angst about being one of the cool kids. As prom approaches and the college acceptance deadline looms, Lady Bird finds that all of her plots and schemes may have her in over her head.
The standout element of Lady Bird is the talented cast. Saoirse Ronan plays our lead and has nice range. She can pivot from serious to flighty to melodramatic in a way that makes it feel meaningful. She seems especially adept at bringing out the best of those around her. Her character is at her strongest when bouncing off of her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts), her best friend (Beanie Feldstein), and her love interest (Lucas Hedges.) These players all seem catalyzed by Ronan and have some great interactions together. This is especially important because most of the characters here are your standard stock for a teen drama and the dialogue can be quite clunky at times.
The Usual Drama.
Lady Bird is so filled with your expected high school moments that it feels like a whole season of a TV teen drama series squashed down into one film. You have familiar family drama about controlling mothers and disappointing siblings and the shifting dynamics of an out of work dad. You have bog standard Catholic school shenanigans like confrontations with nuns, rebellion against school uniforms and quaint morals, and envy of the cool/rich kids. Their are two major romantic arcs, the gaining and losing of social status, major transgressions against social taboos, and a musical and prom and college applications to contend with. Every source of comedy and tension possible is squeezed into the film which constantly rushes from one “big moment” to the next.
This is director Greta Gerwig’s second film, and her first film behind the camera in almost a decade. Sadly, her lack of experience shows. Lady Bird has lots of pacing problems where the film wants to linger on an important moment only to rush off to the next, never allowing any closure to any single element. Characters come and go and are forgotten for long stretches until they figure into some further drama. So much happens that it can’t plausibly be just one school year, and the plot has to get cute to explain why four years of material is happening in just Lady Bird’s senior year.
The cinematography in Lady Bird is uneven. There are some very nice establishing shots and long tracking shots that give our character’s home town flavor and character. These are offset by some poor editing where the camera’s attention either wanders or is jerked around. This is especially apparent in the final half hour where the film struggles to wrap up the story and get our young lady to college.
Missed the Landing.
The frenetic nature of the story would have worked in a plot that allowed ambiguity. In real life things begin but don’t reach fruition or just kind of wander off into the distance. Lady Bird could have been a charming slice-of-life comedy that assembles all of the events possible for a teen drama and lets each just exist, without forcing them all to mean something. Unfortunately, this drama has to have a big old teachable moment for everything, which means cramming the end of the film with forced resolution.
There is one scene towards the end where the film could have ended, leaving you wondering if our characters were going to wind up alright. Hearts and minds had changed, but there was a sense that it may not wrap up nice and neat like an episode of TV. This would have been a fine place to stop…but the film trudges along for another 20 minutes, adding in standard college drama to our already overstuffed high school drama and providing a tidy ending where we get explicit closure that feels unearned by all that’s come before it.
Back to School.
Is Lady Bird worthy of a perfect 100%? Heck no. A great cast and nice ensemble moments can’t fully revive a shambling plot cobbled together from every cliche in the genre. Is Lady Bird a bad movie? Not really. Its pace makes it breezy entertainment that whisks you over the problematic elements and gives you just enough high points to coast to a lazy finish. A restrained tone goes a long way towards making the plot seem more plausible than it actually is. You’ll be carried along for the ride during your viewing, albeit with a very bumpy landing sequence. It’s once you’re back on the ground in the real world that this film looks tacky and over-earnest. Like looking back through a yearbook, you’ll shake your head and wonder why you thought any of this was such a big deal at the time.