“I wish I could live through something,” laments the titular character in the opening scene of Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a 17-year-old girl teetering on the brink of “adulthood” – inverted commas required here, because I am over a decade older than Gerwig’s protagonist and am still wondering exactly when it is you “become” an adult.
From the very first moments we are introduced to Lady Bird, it is clear she is in a rush to reach this place of maturity, to hurry through the last awkward moments of her teenage adolescence before landing triumphantly in a new and improved life.
It’s a life she idealises, located as far away as possible from her humdrum hometown of Sacramento.
Somewhere there is culture, like “New York, or at least Connecticut, or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods”.
This is something we can all relate to: feeling awkward, feeling trapped by circumstance, believing once this slightly shit bit of our life comes to end, another can finally get going.
New York is where Lady Bird imagines she will flourish, where she will lead a colourful, exhilarating life; the irony being that her life in Sacramento is far from boring (and that Lady Bird is far from drab herself).
Of course, adolescence and impatience come hand in hand.
It’s Lady Bird’s impatience to grow up that contributes largely to the tension experienced between her and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), with whom she frequently clashes.
The mother-daughter duo can go from sharing a sentimental moment to experiencing all-out rage in seconds – and back again.
Lady Bird’s father (Tracy Letts) reasons that it’s because they both have “strong personalities”.
And he’s not wrong; the two are more similar than Lady Bird would care to believe.
However, Marion has lived a life of sacrifice: her time is spent either looking after hospital patients at her work or caring for her family at home.
Being a teenager, Lady Bird doesn’t necessarily appreciate why that is. She’s acutely aware of her family’s low socio-economic status, something she ends up lying about when trying to impress the resident “cool girl” at her high school, but rather than empathise with her mother’s situation, Lady Bird snubs her.
She does not want to be like her mother, to live a mundane life, to have to constantly worry about other people.
It’s little wonder Marion feels hurt: watching your child grow up and leave home is hard enough, without them actively rejecting everything you provided for them, not least their name. So, the two argue. A lot.
Their exchanges are often hurtful; they critique and judge one another relentlessly. Marion literally tells her daughter she’s a snob, that she will never amount to anything or go anywhere and that she shouldn’t have had that second helping of pasta.
Meanwhile Lady Bird scrawls “Fuck you mom” on her cast, which she acquires after throwing herself out of a moving car in response to one of their first onscreen arguments.
We could judge either of their behaviour as “bad” or “wrong”, but we don’t – because we get it.
The film portrays the complexity of mother-daughter relationships with true authenticity. Lady Bird and Marion are both decidedly flawed characters, but this makes them real. It makes them relatable.
After all, what mother hasn’t snapped at her daughter, only to later regret it? And is it not hindsight that allows the grown-up you to reflect on your teenage years, shaking your head while thinking, “my poor mother”?
Gerwig doesn’t keep her female leads in check.
Lady Bird and Marion are fully fleshed out, three-dimensional characters, capable of a multitude of complex responses. Obviously not all of these responses are going to be agreeable, or even right.
Lady Bird is as stubborn, egotistical and facetious as she is witty, charming and self-assured (and laugh out loud funny). Marion is blunt and demanding, but this doesn’t mean she doesn’t care.
Lady Bird discusses this with her first boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges), telling him “you can’t be scary and warm”, to which he responds, “I think you can, your mom is”.
Both mother and daughter mirror the unpredictability of real people, and it’s all the more satisfying because they are women: women with agency, with power and with unapologetic emotions. Danny is one of two boys we see Lady Bird date during the film. Their relationship ends rather abruptly, after we witness a not-so-shocking revelation in a bathroom stall – although it does come as a shock to Lady Bird.
She is poignantly hurt, going as far as to cross his name off of the wall behind her bed, before casually getting over it about a day later.
She moves on to Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a supposedly aloof and “complicated” bad boy, who’s actually rather simple (and often quite laughable). This also turns out to be a bit of a disaster but one she is willing to overlook, mostly because she wants him to take her to prom.
When he picks her up, he doesn’t come to the door, lazily beeping his horn instead. Her dad says what the rest of us are thinking: “You’re not gonna get in a car with a guy that honks, are ya?”.
(Minor) spoiler alert: Lady Bird gets in the car. But she also ends up ditching Kyle for a much worthier prom date – her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). The two are inseparable for most of the film: they discuss masturbation while shoving communion wafers in their mouths and share a joint emotional breakdown set to the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me”, the epitome of teenage angst.
Their onscreen relationship is warm, touching and heartfelt; it’s arguably the most romantic too.
When Lady Bird gives Julie the cold shoulder in favour of the popular crowd, we’re as devastated as she is.
But it makes their reunion truly heart melting, far more so than the usual “boy gets the girl” ending of most other teen romance movies.
Lady Bird isn’t defined by her heterosexual relationships.
She doesn’t need to find fulfillment in them; the film doesn’t close with her swooning in the arms of her “dream guy”.
Instead, her and Julie slow-dance, which prompts a raised eyebrow or two from the nuns at their Catholic high school. They take a classic prom picture together and walk home holding each other, laughing heartily beneath a twinkling night sky. If that’s not romance, what is?
Through a series of vignettes of ordinary life, Lady Bird shows us just how extraordinary that life can be.
Importantly, it makes it very clear there’s more to being a young woman than finding the right guy, and that wo-mance is a force to be reckoned with – as are mothers and their daughters.