Lady Bird is the solo directorial debut of writer-director Greta Gerwig and tells a coming-of-age story which avoids clichés at every turn. Starring Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson and Laurie Metcalf as her mother, Marion McPherson, the film explores their complex and turbulent relationship as “Lady Bird” navigates her way through high school and applying for college. Lady Bird is a film which takes a well-trodden story and tells it in an unconventional way. While the film is far from flawless, it showcases Gerwig as an already confident and competent filmmaker, able to masterfully balance both ends of comedy and drama.
One of the film’s greatest strengths is how well it captures its setting. Shot on a digital camera and edited in post-production, the cinematography replicates the film technology of 2002, the year in which it takes place. Set in Sacramento, California, every sun-soaked street, pop-culture reference and typical aspect of suburban American life is expertly shown. The setting itself becomes a character; all of its wealth inequalities, bending roads and landmarks contributing to the film’s magnetism. Lady Bird constantly reminds you of its time-period. With news of the Iraq war often in the background, the fashion of the early Noughties on full-display, flip phones and specific music choices from the time, the film may be the first big attempt to create nostalgia for the 2000s.
Where Lady Bird truly shines, however, is in its writing. Gerwig’s script is sharp and witty, without an ounce of fat. While often comedic, all the dialogue is realistic and grounded, helping to bring the characters to life. There are very few moments of obvious exposition as the information relayed is weaved well into each scene. Gerwig’s directing is good and there are a fair amount of subtle stylistic traits, primarily through how the scenes unfold and the editing, but where she really deserves credit is in her near faultless screenplay.
The editing of the film is, on the whole, fairly hit and miss. Sometimes, the scene to scene editing is used for comedy; the set-up is established in one shot with a quick cut to a different shot being played as the punchline. At other times, however, the editing feels extremely choppy. The start of the film is fairly disorientating and, with the number of quick cuts in each scene, gives the sense that some scenes were a mash-up of many different takes. The editing is usually utilised very purposefully, which makes it very obvious when the style doesn’t quite match the scene; quiet, sombre scenes having the same amount of quick, energetic cuts as scenes which take place at a party or dance. Although not a huge issue, it is noticeable. There were times where I found myself waiting for a longer take.
Additionally, Lady Bird is a short film which could benefit from a few extra scenes or moments. There is some discussion of mental health that is brilliantly handled at some points and rushed over in others. While these moments can change your perspective of some minor characters, they are only given single, cursory mentions. The film could have benefitted fleshing out these issues a little further. Not for a sense of closure, as the film is often deliberately ambiguous, but to help develop certain characters.
Despite this, Lady Bird’s main characters are thoroughly well-realised. Ronan and Metcalf have already received plenty of attention from award ceremonies, and rightly so. Their characters are complex, absorbing and morally ambiguous. Beanie Feldstein, Tracy Letts and Timothée Chalamet also give fantastic performances and have been severely over-looked in critical responses to the film. On the other hand, there are some weaker performances in the film, a few actors seeming to be consciously acting the character as opposed to embodying them. This isn’t enough to sour the film, but they stick out when compared to how brilliant the rest of the cast is.
On the whole, Lady Bird is an impressive achievement from Gerwig that shows great potential. While there are some flaws in the editing and acting, the directing, writing and cinematography is enough to sell this film alone, managing to tell a conventional story in an unconventional way. Some of the best jokes are spoiled in the trailers, but Lady Bird still has plenty of comedy that is beautifully slotted alongside some poignant moments of drama and connection. The film preaches the importance of attention and that is exactly what Lady Bird deserves from its audience. It’s not perfect by any means, but it’s smart, beautiful and it might make you miss your old LG flip phone.
Objective score: 3.9/5
Subjective score: 4/5
Overall score: 7.9/10
Words by Dan Lyons