The film’s exact power comes from how Greta Gerwig’s intentions concern the ensemble, not just Lady Bird.
[NOTE: This piece discusses the film in detail. Spoilers if you haven’t seen it]
In just over 90 minutes, a year of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s life –– and just FYI, she’d prefer you to call her by the name in quotes, at least for now –– whizzes by, depicting her final year at school before she flies the nest and goes to college or gets a job or whatever the future will bring. As a coming-of-age movie, the picture comes attached with expectations of what she’ll have to deal with over the year, and Gerwig tackles these head-on. There are friends and fallings-out, boys who become boyfriends which result in break-ups, family troubles which have ties to school-related woes. As much as Lady Bird, the character played by an Oscar-deserving Saorise Ronan, has to juggle these various components of her life, so too does Lady Bird, the film.
Yet, as much as a plain-stated description of the events and story beats that make up the film’s narrative make it sound like any old coming-of-age movie, the solo directorial debut of Greta Gerwig stands out as one of the best because how it not only achieves so much more, but that it does in such a remarkably short run-time. Much of this relates to how Gerwig’s screenplay affords a level of generosity to the supporting cast of characters, rather than being solely focused on the plight of Lady Bird. This decision builds up a level of community between them all like when Lady Bird and Lucas Hedges’ Danny see each other at a restaurant following graduation.
From a less skilled writer and director, these characters would operate purely as archetypes. Danny would be a theatre kid, Timothée Chalamet’s Kyle a mysterious musician and Lois Smith’s Sister Sarah-Joan would serve as an authority figure for Lady Bird to run up against during her final year. Gerwig’s intentions regarding this aren’t immediately clear, it is with time that the narrative properly unfurls to encapsulate the ensemble and focus on more than the relationship of Lady Bird and her mother, Marion played by an Oscar-deserving Laurie Metcalf.
However, the opening image hints at where it’ll end up. For as much as this film is discussed in relation to its frenetic pacing –– a la Mistress America‘s screwball styling –– (I’ve already done it in this piece), the first frames of the film find quiet serenity as Lady Bird and Marion sleep. Finishing up a tour of local colleges, they sleep in the same bed, their faces pointing towards one another.
Shot by Sam Levy, this establishes the dichotomy between mother and daughter, which then allows for similarities between them to be picked up on, as well as the differences which make help to make up their strong personalities. The shot also establishes Gerwig’s ability to locate moments in the hectic. Her decision to start the film with one of these, and continue to include them throughout, is what imbues Lady Bird with such a detectable warmth. How much care she has for its characters demonstrates her talent in how much she manages to pack into this streamlined work.
Now, the protagonist of the film is ostensibly Lady Bird, there’s no mistaking that. As such, the narrative is focalised through her and we are aligned with her for most of the film’s length. Though this doesn’t mean we are sympathetic for her character at all times as she can be quite difficult. She’s argumentative, cuts class and isn’t afraid to speak her mind. She makes impulsive decisions, choosing to deface Sister Sarah-Joan’s car and throw Mr Bruno’s grade book into the trash. At the same time, she’s evidently in a foundational period in her life, where she’s experiencing certain emotions for the first time as she tries to understand what kind of person she is. Instead, the audience/character relationship is one grounded in empathy, an emotion which emanates outwards as the film comes to acknowledge how much hardship the other characters are also having to deal with.
Case in point: her relationship with Danny. He and Lady Bird meet as a result of the fall musical; Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. As she watches his audition –– performing “Giants in the Sky‘” from another Sondheim, In the Woods –– she falls from him in that moment. In the words of the script he is “DREAM BOAT CITY” (all caps are intentional). The film quickly cuts to later that night, when she scrawls his name on her bedroom wall, and then quickly to another day, when she and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feinstein) check the casting list. Cuts of this speed could be jarring if there wasn’t a constant in Lady Bird to orientate the viewer through the jumps from one scene to the next.
She and Danny eventually become boyfriend and girlfriend. Come the night of the first performance, the cast go out to celebrate. At one point in the evening, the line in the ladies’ restroom is too busy, so she and Julie hurry across to the men’s, only to stumble across Danny and a boy named Greg making out. Gerwig then cuts to the best friends crying to Dave Matthews’ “Crash into Me”, followed by another performance –– where Lady Bird decidedly opts not to take Danny’s hand when they all take a bow –– the removal of her cast, finals and suddenly, after only twenty or so seconds, it’s Christmas.
Most would leave Danny here. In a lesser story, coming from a less gifted and caring craftsperson, he would serve as an example of how first love doesn’t necessarily last as long as the characters hope it will, and as an anecdote for Lady Bird to bring up at college parties. Gerwig is not content to do that. Danny and the rest of the supporting characters all have their own lives and struggles which blend together with Lady Bird’s story resulting in a richer picture.
He and Lady Bird eventually see each other again, after the new year, when he walks into the coffee shop where she now works. Talking in the alley outside, he breaks down:
“Fuck me. Can you not tell anyone, please? I’m so sorry about everything. I’m so ashamed of all of it. It’s going to be bad and I just need a little bit of time to figure out how I’m going to tell my mom and dad.”
Off this, Lady Bird embraces him and promises that she won’t tell. The film doesn’t include a scene later on where Danny comes out to his parents, grandmother or friends beyond Lady Bird, but the inclusion of this scene and how it holds on the shot of the pair hugging indicates that Gerwig cannot abide letting these other characters fading away or being purely props working in service of Lady Bird’s journey, narratively and emotionally.
From here, Gerwig is sure to include a scene of Lady Bird cheering him on at the spring play –– a performance of Shakespeare’s The Tempest –– and the aforementioned meeting at the restaurant. There is no immediate closure, but neither forgets about the other, and so neither should we.
This is further reinforced by the scene that follows on from the coffee shop, between Marion and Father Leviatch, the director of the fall musical, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson. During rehearsals for the musical, they played a game called “First One to Cry”, with the aim of getting their emotions going. While each of the students participating have to really try in their attempts to produce tears, the Father sobs almost instantaneously. Again, Gerwig could’ve left this here, as an uncomfortable situation that could possibly be found humourous depending on an audience’s disposition, but instead she follows-up on his mental and emotional states, reinforcing the idea that this film is about more than just Lady Bird’s problems. The scene may entail her as Father Leviatch asks Marion not to tell her daughter, but the primary focus in on him and that he’s getting help rather than just being that teacher who left between semesters and no-one heard from again.
Julie’s mom has her own relationship happening in the background of, and between, scenes. Kyle’s dad has cancer, a fact brought up after one of Lady Bird’s jokes backfires and later returned to when Gerwig’s camera lingers on his dad, as Lady Bird sneaks out of his house. Tracy Letts’ Larry McPherson struggles with depression, being laid off and trying to find a job while up against sets of graduates. Miguel, Lady Bird’s adopted brother, and Shelley, his girlfriend, played by Jordan Rodrigues and Marielle Scott, graduated from Berkeley yet ended up bagging groceries. Larry and Miguel eventually end up going for the same job. Sister Sarah-Joan gets what is arguably the most important line in the film:
“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”
Gerwig’s love for these characters is palpable, so much that she cannot help but try and follow-up on them as frequently as possible, devoting attention to them if only for a shot. Even Father Walther, the Junior Varsity football coach who takes over for Father Leviatch, gets one when he celebrates Danny nailing the final monologue of The Tempest. Remembrance is key to Lady Bird, how seemingly inconsequential moments which take up just seconds of our lives can sometimes be the most influential without us having any way of realising at the time. Though, as much as the film’s memorability comes from how it grows to encompass an ensemble, it also ensures that it links this back to being a mother and daughter story.
In keeping with the idea of moments, Marion gets one to herself early on in the film. In the script it comes just ten pages in, as she drives home from work. Soft music plays over it and the relaxing atmosphere sets in despite how quickly the moment is over in the grand scheme of things. On first glance, this helps to inform an instance of serenity for Marion, in between her shifts at the psychiatric hospital, and running a household. It’s a sprinkling of character that could’ve been left at that, though it comes back around after Lady Bird goes to college.
This sequence includes a point where other filmmakers might have opted to conclude the film. Lady Bird travels across the United States, from West Coast to East Coast, arrives at her dorm and finds the unfinished letters Marion tried to write and that Larry salvaged from the trash. Later, at a party, she and a guy get to talking. He asks her name and after a moment she responds:
“Christine. My name is Christine.”
It’s not hard to imagine the possibility of a hard cut to black and the credits roll following up the assertion. Of course, once again, Lady Bird is not just the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. And so, the film runs for a few more minutes, the night turns sour when Lady Bird gets taken to hospital. Upon waking up, she walks the streets and ends up at a church. Outside, she calls home:
“Hi Mom and Dad, it’s me. Christine. It’s the name you gave me. It’s a good one. Dad, this is more for Mom – Hey Mom: did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento? I did and I wanted to tell you, but we weren’t really talking when it happened. All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing. But I wanted to tell you. I love you. Thank you, I’m… thank you.”
Through match cuts, from Christine to Marion and back, Gerwig reflects on their relationship as they drive, independently, but down the same streets. Intertwined because of familial, formal and spatial relations. There’s no true indication from this about how Christine’s college experience will go, much less where she’ll end up after. These ninety minutes alone show much can happen in a year, imagine how much can in four. But as Gerwig returns to her lead, standing outside, the shot holding on her as she utters those final words, it’s clear how this moment between states –– in multiple senses: native Californian and resident New Yorker, high school student and college student, teenager and adult –– is one of the most formative in her life.
The exact impact of this comes from how Gerwig’s picture is built up from delicate brushstrokes that were far more than just background details and throwaway lines. She did so on both a macro-level, by granting members of the ensemble scenes and moments like the ones discussed above and on a micro-level, in that Marion allows for a stronger connection of this idea to Christine. For as much as this is a portrait of a year in the life of a young woman, it is also a landscape of so many others’.