The following headlines are the best AND worst thing that could have happened to Greta Gerwig’s wonderful directorial debut Lady Bird:
Yes, as of right now Lady Bird is the best-reviewed movie in Rotten Tomatoes history, an accomplishment so widely publicized it will certainly drive new audiences to the film while also setting the bar way too high. The it’s-good-but-not-that-good responses are inevitable. However, Gerwig, the longtime indie queen who also wrote Lady Bird and very loosely based it on her own life, is overjoyed to have a problem like this. As she told RT:
“This is completely amazing and so incredibly appreciated by the entire team that made Lady Bird. We put our heart and souls into this movie, and the last step of this deeply collaborative art form of filmmaking is giving the film to the audience and the film critics. That there has been such a warm reception is a dream come true. Thank you to everyone who has seen the film and has written about it so thoughtfully. We are all on cloud nine and using our tomato emoji more than we ever thought possible.”
We’ve kind of been here before, though. In fact, almost a year ago to the day critics were similarly raving about Kelly Fremon Craig’s directorial debut film The Edge of Seventeen (95% RT). The year before that they had nothing but praise for Marielle Heller’s debut film The Diary of a Teenage Girl (94% RT). Earlier this year, Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child follow-up Landline (74% RT) was also warmly received, albeit not quite as passionately as the others I mentioned.
Those films and Lady Bird have the following in common: 1) They’re semi-autobiographical coming-of-age stories; 2) They’re directed and written by women.
Thus, Seventeen, Diary, Landline and Lady Bird are proof of what happens when women are allowed to tell their stories on film. Not surprisingly, you get better movies which take familiar stories and tell them from a new and unique point of view, from Seventeen’s modern-day take on teenage selfishness to Diary’s 70s-set sexual awakening to Landline’s 90s-set tale of one family’s failure to communicate.
Sadly, though, there is one other thing the films all have in common: hardly anyone went to see them in theaters. Lady Bird seems poised to change that thanks to its newfound RT notoriety. It has already dwarfed the box office totals for Diary and Landline, will soon pass Edge of Seventeen, and it hasn’t even expanded nationwide yet.
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why Lady Bird is flourishing where its predecessors floundered (mostly because the reasons are varied), but the one unassailable fact is Lady Bird is crazy good. The hype is real; this is a nearly flawless film. As Letterboxd put it, “Although Lady Bird features many of the tropes familiar to American high school movies—prom, losing one’s virginity, best friend fights, wrong-side-of-the-tracks class comparisons—they’re handled in a fresh way, a deft balance between comedy and drama.”
Set in 2002, Lady Bird tells a deceptively simple story about (and this might seem like an oxymoron) a selfish millennial. Brooklyn’s Saoirse Ronan, who has already won a Gotham Award for her performance and now seems set to be a regular at all awards shows up to and including the Oscars, plays the titular Lady Bird, a 17-year-old high school senior who wants nothing more than to escape middle-class Sacramento to the cultural promise of any college on the East Coast, especially one in New York.
She bickers endlessly with her mother (Laurie Metcalf, delivering some of the best work of her career), lusts after all the wrong boys (most notably Manchester By the Sea’s Lucas Hedges as an adorable drama nerd), takes her one friendship for granted, routinely says and does some horrible things, views the beginnings of the Iraq War on TV with passive disinterest, doesn’t really subscribe to Catholic beliefs even though she attends a Catholic school, is unsympathetic toward the economic hardships endured by her family members, and just generally behaves like she’s the center of the universe.
So, basically, she’s a teenager.
Ronan plays the character’s inherently insufferable qualities perfectly. For example, her given name is actually Christine, but she insists on being called “Lady Bird” as a symbolic rejection of societal conventions whereby we simply accept the names given to us at birth. Yet when her best friend tries something similar she heavily discourages it because somebody else doing it with her somehow makes it seem less special.
There is also a fierceness and sardonic wit to Lady Bird which makes her an irresistible screen presence. You get the sense this deeply intelligent, but self-centered girl is going to have her ass kicked by college before rebounding and kicking its ass right back as she matures into a more well-rounded adult, one who will no doubt resemble Greta Gerwig herself in many ways.
So, watching the ups and downs of her final year of high school is a window into what she will eventually become. The same determination she exhibits in pursuit of her romantic dreams, for example, will undoubtedly be used someday in pursuit of higher goals.
Gerwig shoots all of this in an unobtrusive, yet refreshingly kinetic, Edgar Wright-esque style. Like Wright, she frequently finds laughs through ingeniously rapid editing, such as one particularly inspired bit involving Lady Bird and her friend nursing heartbreak by singing along to Dave Matthews Band or another sequence which hilariously cuts from Lady Bird looking at a cute boy’s yearbook photo to a simple close-up of a bathtub’s running water faucet, a visual callback to and signifier of what we had previously learned was Lady’s preferred method of masturbation.
If anything, Gerwig might lean into this style just a little too much. She marches the film forward at such a brisk pace she ends up leaving one subplot involving a mourning and possibly suicidal priest (played by Fences’ spectacular Stephen Henderson) at Ladybird’s school underexplored and unresolved to the point you wonder why it’s even there. The film dots the edges of Ladybird’s life with characters whose emotional anguish is noticed only by us since she’s usually too self-involved to look around, but ala Edge of Seventeen those side stories work best if Ladybird eventually becomes aware of them or matures enough to ask if something is wrong. The priest’s sudden absence is so inconsequential to her life, though, it feels entirely extraneous.
And there you go. There’s one reason Lady Bird probably doesn’t deserve its Rotten Tomatoes record. However, I have little interest in trying to tear the film down. Heck, there is nothing left to tear down.
Speaking as someone who was roughly Lady Bird’s age in 2002 and who was also a middle-class kid attending an upper class Catholic high school, there is so much Gerwig gets right about the time and place it almost made me feel uncomfortable. Seeing Lucas Hedges in his blue shirt, beige pant school uniform certainly felt like looking in a mirror.
But speaking as a male there’s also so much of Lady Bird which is foreign to my own experience. I can’t relate to this movie, particularly its nuanced treatment of the fraught mother-daughter relationship, the same way the predominantly female audience at my nearly sold-out screening last night could. That’s okay. I have been over-indulged by pop culture long enough. I can still respond to this film’s undeniable emotional honesty, wit and insightful depiction of a young girl’s journey toward learning how to truly mean and completely understand it when she tells her mom she loves her. Maybe you can too.
As Gerwig said, “We put our heart and souls into this movie, and the last step of this deeply collaborative art form of filmmaking is giving the film to the audience.” Marielle Heller, Kelly Fremon Craig and Gillian Robespierre’s uniformly exceptional films are still finding an audience through streaming. Please give Greta Gerwig’s film a chance while it’s still in theaters.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The hype is real; Lady Bird is a nearly flawless film.
Now it’s your turn. Let me know how wrong or right I am in the comments below.