You may know Lady Bird as the film which recently became the best reviewed film on Rotten Tomatoes of all time (I’m just happy it’s no longer Toy Story 2, the disappointing followup that was redone years later in a far superior film). It is certainly that, an Oscar frontrunner, and also Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, but my biggest fear is that those things will overwhelm the conversation about it’s actual quality. In fact, it’s probably the best possible version of this specific brand of Indie Coming-of-Age Comedy-Drama (the kind that leans towards the latter).
It is also not as my mom thought about Lady Bird Johnson, but instead a pretty dorky and weird 17 year old (who calls herself Lady Bird) attending a Catholic school in 2002-2003 Sacramento and played by the always fantastic Saoirise Ronan. She’s not an underachiever or picked on or a generic outcast. Just a very believable and recognizable teen. She has one friend (Beanie Feldstein) and despite reusing the stereotype of the friend being larger, not a single joke is made at that expense by the movie or a character. Instead, we get a couple mentions by the very skinny Ronan’s character that she wishes she could lose weight while in her presence (something I see my family do often and I catch myself thinking and hold it back) which is met with an appropriate death glare.
It really is a movie full of walking right up to a lot of stereotypes of such things and then taking the far more logical option. Even the stereotyped characters are brought back a lot of knowing chuckles from remembering people I knew (in some cases myself). The structure of the Catholic school is balanced by the fact that aside from a scene with an anti-abortion speaker, the people in charge all seem like decent, well meaning people who have lives away from just tending to their students. Heck, even a stereotypical football coach forced into a role teaching theater tackles it with the zeal of his typical job and doesn’t speak down to what is surely a very different group. Her relationships too with guys are charming and awkward and any romanticism is purely on the part of the character and not the movie.
It’s a movie largely devoid of big dramatic scenes. It’s not that nothing happens, it’s just that reveals and fights aren’t done with ACTING, they are far more muted and realistic. The requisite critical and overbearing mother (played by Laurie Metcalf who of course does what she does out of love) who conflicts with her daughter never has a big scene with her where the one tells the other off for good or the reconcile completely. She’s someone who mostly recognizes where her nature comes from but she doesn’t change, she’s just always going to be the same aspiring for her child to behave a certain way and be “their best self” (which gets a wonderful line back from Lady Bird) while also accepting their current situation and not try to dream of anything she considers unrealistic.
I’ll admit I went in a bit wary. As much as I like Ronan, I’ve seen enough of these movies and enough Greta Gerwig movies to expect something generic and critic pleasing with a quirky and generally insufferable lead. But I really was impressed by it. Ronan and Laurie will of course deservedly get the critical love, but the cast is perfectly cast and acted from top to bottom and theirs such wonderful understated touches such as the Ronald Reagan poster and the use of a mid-90s Dave Matthews Band track (instead of something then contemporaneous). It’s well shot without being showy. It’s the platonic ideal of an overdone indie genre and something very worth checking out.