When Suburbicon came out, I brought up the fact that George Clooney does a lot better in front of the camera than behind it. That was in my mind when I went to see Lady Bird, as actress Greta Gerwig is always so terrific on screen as a free spirit type. Even in the movies she’s done that I’ve hated (Damsels in Distress, Wiener-Dog, Greenberg, and 20th Century Women)…she’s the best thing in them, and I always wish a better movie would’ve been made around her.
She co-wrote the terrific Frances Ha five years ago with her boyfriend Noah Baumbach, so there wasn’t any doubt that she could write. Now she’s written and directed Lady Bird, her first time behind the camera…and it might be the best movie of the year. It’s that good.
In this semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story, Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) plays 17-year-old Christine aka Lady Bird. She’s not thrilled with the Catholic school she’s going to, and her parents have trouble affording it. She doesn’t like that she’s stuck in a square city like Sacramento, instead of a hip place like San Francisco or New York. She has a sweet best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein of Neighbors 2, and sister of Jonah Hill), but she wishes she was friends with the more popular students. She’s a virgin, that’s pining for the guy (Lucas Hedges of Manchester by the Sea) who plays the lead in the school play. She wishes she had a different mother, or at least, a mother that was nicer and liked her more. Her mom is played by Laurie Metcalf (of the Roseanne show), and I’d love to see her get an Oscar nomination. It would also be nice to see the man who plays her dad, Tracy Letts, get an Oscar nod. He was so great as the caring dad, I’ll forgive him for the awful The Lovers he did earlier in the year.
It blows my mind that in this day and age, and having seen thousands and thousands of movies, that I can come across a movie about teens that deals with familiar tropes, but is cliche free, and warmed my heart and kept a smile on my face the entire hour and 30 minutes.
One of many things I enjoyed was how Lady Bird dealt with a nun at Immaculate Heart (Lois Smith, who was also good in the disappointing Marjorie Prime a few months ago). Again, instead of a cliche brooding teen girl fighting with the mean nun spouting off about Jesus and the Lord, you can tell they don’t hate each other, and she offers the troubled girl decent advice.
When she goes to talk to various boys she likes (Lucas Hedges at first, later Timothee Chalamet), she doesn’t just stammer around her words. She throws away cute lines like “Come here often?” at one that’s in a grocery store, or tells the other one how cool his band was when she saw them previously.
Another sign of a smartly written film, is the friendship she starts to develop with the popular girl (played by Mila Kunis lookalike Odeya Rush). You know that’s not going to end well. You know that Lady Bird’s going to start neglecting her friend Julie …but it all goes in directions that seem a lot more realistic than the way movies usually portray these scenarios. It’s also refreshing that there’s never a single joke made about Julie being less attractive, or overweight. Even when Julie chimes in with the more popular kids, they’re not snickering or making fun of her. They listen to what she has to say, as they would in real life. They just don’t invite her to hang out with them, and it’s a subtle way she’s being cast aside by Lady Bird. The performance by Feldstein is so good, because she’s not just being a sad sack, but is a fully realized character. Feldstein deserves the same accolades the rest of the cast is going to get for their performances.
There are mother-daughter fights that are so well scripted, you don’t know whose side you’re on. And just when you think the mother has gone so over-the-top with her criticism of Lady Bird, she says or does something that makes you realize she may have a point, or that she really does care. In two of those scenes, I cried my eyes out.
A smaller role is Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson, last seen in Fences). You feel for him and what he’s gone through, and laugh at the direction a new leader of the play Merrily We Roll Along takes.
The score by Jon Brion (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) is lovely and not manipulative. The soundtrack works, with one of the few Dave Matthews songs I like — “Crash Into Me.” During the Alanis Morissette song “Hand in my Pocket”, there’s one of the funniest disses ever. Lady Bird excitedly tells her dad a fun fact about the song. She says, “Can you believe she wrote this song in just 10 minutes?”
There’s a pause, before he says, “I believe it.”
She also does a funny version of Barbra Streisand’s “Everybody Says Don’t” at an audition for a play. And from the best CD of 1998 — the title track to Ani Difranco’s “Little Plastic Castle.”
I have to also give extra credit for mentioning Jim Morrison and The Doors, and playing another great, but unknown 60s band at a party scene — Arthur Lee and Love. It was so refreshing that, instead of going with Bowie, Radiohead, Wilco…or some really hip indie band, she went back to an unknown 60s group, showing love for Love.
The film has a surprising amount of depth, and hardly any of the contrivances that we usually get with a movie like this.
People have said this is a “love letter to Sacramento.”
Well, I’m going to pen a love letter to Gerwig for giving us this treasure.
Don’t be scared off by the weird sounding title, otherwise you’ll miss the best movie of the year.
4 ½ stars out of 5.