Let me start by affirming something: I LOVE a good coming-of-age story. I also LOVE well-written dialogue. And complex female characters. And a score by Jon Brion. And, from what I’ve seen of her on-screen persona, Greta Gerwig, always a joy to watch and seemingly impossible to dislike.
Another thing: I don’t normally like to write reviews in the first person, mainly because I don’t like to read reviews that are written in the first person; I’m reading a review to find out if a film is worth watching, meaning I don’t really care about the author’s subjectivity, their personal connection to the story or characters. So I’m breaking my own rule here, by writing about my experience of watching Lady Bird, rather than discussing it objectively, as a standalone piece of art. In doing this I’m trying to understand why my response to the film was not a positive one.
Because, according to the internet, Lady Bird is a masterpiece. I’ve read reviews about its ‘exquisite dialogue’, ‘torrents of endless zeal’, and the fact that it ‘flows from one perfect beat to the next’. I’ve even heard it described as ‘the best film of the year (so far)’. So what am I missing, here? How come a film that, on paper, is exactly my cup of tea, left me feeling so dissatisfied?
Let’s talk about story. Saoirse Ronan plays Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson, an edgy seventeen-year old with artistic aspirations growing up in Sacramento, California in 2002. Like many teenagers, she feels as though she has already outgrown the town she grew up in, her Catholic school surroundings and stifling home-life. She longs to attend a college on the East coast – where ‘writers live in the woods’ and she’ll get some distance from her often overbearing mother, with whom she has a volatile relationship.
It’s a pretty standard ‘teen movie’ setup. Lady Bird pursues boys, realises that sex is disappointing, learns that fitting in with the popular crowd is meaningless. She winds up going to prom with her best friend. There’s nothing really about the story – or the message of the story – that hasn’t been explored before, in countless other coming-of-age movies. Probably the most interesting component is Lady Bird’s relationship with her parents, and this is largely due to Laurie Metcalf’s excellent, fiery performance which works as a contrast to the quieter and more understated Tracy Letts.
The cinematography screams ‘Art Film’. It’s got that dreamy, hazy minimalism that is becoming a trademark of A24 productions. This suits Gerwig’s ‘cool’ style of direction and paints a softly nostalgic picture of the world in which the story unfolds. The screenplay, too, is undeniably cool and edgy, full of sharp witticisms and characters who always assert their feelings with complete, deadpan frankness (e.g. ‘I wish I looked more like the girls in the magazines’, or, ‘I haven’t lied in two years’). The dialogue is, as many reviewers have stated, well-written. But the problem I have with it is that a. teenagers don’t generally talk like this and b. the actors have been directed to deliver their lines as if they are reading them straight from the script, and not as if they are actually feeling anything they’re saying.
Overall I found Lady Bird to be quite lifeless, suffocating under its own edgy façade. It surprises me that the story is semi-autobiographical, based on Gerwig’s own experiences of growing up in Sacramento and attending Catholic school and, eventually, moving to New York City. It should be full of life. Perhaps I am just out of the loop – this is how all arty teenagers in Sacramento act and talk, and I just don’t get it? Perhaps this style of movie is just not for me? I like the characters I watch in films to feel real, and I like stories (especially of the coming-of-age variety) to be alive with truth, to sing with emotion. Consider for a moment another coming-of-age story that is also nominated for Best Picture, Call Me by Your Name, a film that swells with raw human spirit and pulls you along until its heart-breaking end. You are not watching actors playing characters, delivering lines; you are watching Elio and Oliver, you are sinking into the rich Italian landscapes, and you are living their story. I wish Lady Bird was even half as absorbing. But maybe I just don’t buy what Gerwig is selling.
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