Coming of age films exist in all shapes and sizes, but they all have something in common: the fact that carving a path from childhood to your adult life is never easy. We've seen this recently in films as varied as LION, BOYHOOD, and PERKS OF BEING A WALLFLOWER. Now, audiences want a raw storytelling style, and glimmers of truth behind the plot. Look no further than LADY BIRD.
Note: Spoilers for Lady Bird are discussed below.
Greta Gerwig, best known for her work in front of the camera, wrote and directed this semi-autobiographical indie. The young-yet-seasoned Saoirse Ronan plays the title character in what is one of the best films of 2017, and the freshest coming-of-age story in recent years. Events in Gerwig's life may not have happened precisely as written for the film, but her connection to the story is evident in every frame.
Christine McPherson is a high school senior navigating the school and social scene in Sacramento CA, in the early '00s. But Christine isn't her given name – the name she gave herself, that is. That's Lady Bird, and the name is an act of rebellion against her mother and her Catholic School.
As her senior year winds down, she has an epiphany. With average grades and no hobbies, Christine doesn't stand out as she hopes to be accepted to an east coast college. State school just won't do; she's desperate for an escape from Sacramento. The mildly rebellious teen begins to push the tolerance of virtually everyone around her: friends, family, teachers. This little bird wants to spread her wings, but like most teens she's not strong enough to fly just yet.
Lady Bird adds a pinkish red hair dye to accent her new name and identity. The aesthetic change matches her expanding personality, and along with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), she joins the school's theatre program. Her penchant for performance leads her to the stage, and there she begins her coming of age.
Those moments of finding yourself in hobbies, are also often the times when peers become close friends. For Lady Bird, the theatre is a gateway to many firsts, especially her first real romantic relationship as she hooks up with fellow thespian Danny (Lucas Hedges).
LADY BIRD captures the uncertainty and awkwardness of dating in your teens, especially in the way that expectations don't quite mesh with reality. One relationship leads to another, and Lady Bird falls for brooding musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) while also nipping and tucking her personality to get in good with local it-girl Jenna (Odeya Rush).
Trying to be someone you're not is difficult enough. Things are harder for Lady Bird, as she isn't truly sure who she is yet. A Catholic School nun, more perceptive than she appears, recognizes the young girl's struggle to find the thin line between love and attention. That brings viewers to the most relatable relationship that Lady Bird struggles with in the film – her parents, and specifically her mother.
Lady Bird and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) have a complicated relationship, but one that will resonate with many teens and parents. Marion often comes off as critical and passive aggressive towards Lady Bird. Mom often has a real point, which only enrages her daughter and provokes extreme reactions. Lady Bird opens the movie by jumping out of a moving car to avoid their bickering. But to a normal teenager, this constant nagging can perceived as something other than care.
It is care, however. Lady Bird's mom works double shifts to keep her family afloat while dad Larry (Tracy Letts) is out of work. Marion has to play the tough parent while Larry gets to be more gentle and supportive in his laid back attitude.
Tensions simmer as Lady Bird plans her escape from Sacramento. Her east coast college dreams seem dashed from the start by family finance troubles. We've seen films touch upon the struggle of being accepted into your college of choice, but few delve into the guilt – for parents and children alike – that goes along with financial issues a family faces to send kids to school.
Lady Bird deals with that guilt, but she also makes her true college plan behind her mother's back. She gets her wish to go to school in New York, but this has a steep price: a shattered relationship with her mother. Lady Bird may have spent most of her teenage years wanting out of Sacramento, but she quickly realizes how her hometown shaped her, just as most people take for granted key aspects of their upbringing that only come into sharp relief when they're gone.
Parents and friends often provide a voice of reason in coming of age films, but Lady Bird avoids that construction. Christine – sorry, Lady Bird – spends so much time trying to create distance from what her parents want her to be that she loses who she wants to become. There's no easy happy ending, and no friendship without a sense of loss.
If anything, LADY BIRD ends with a sense of ambiguity. We can see hints of emerging adulthood, as she returns to using the name Christine and reaches out to her mom, but we don't know who Lady Bird will become. But isn't that the most realistic part of the film? Growing up doesn't just stop after high school or college; growing up never ends, and life never stops teaching, and this film creates the sense of people with interesting lives to live for years to come.