The following review is part of our coverage of the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival.
The pop songs from your youth have a powerful ability to conjure up memories from that time in your life. Multiple studies have shown that this music has a unique influence on your neurology, and can spark everything from your basic bodily functions to your emotions and your creativity. And yet when Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), curl up together to share a collective sob over their individual heartbreaks while blasting the Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash into Me,” the once-ubiquitous 1996 hit is actually the least evocative thing about the scene. That’s how brilliantly –and sometimes painfully – accurate Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is at capturing the experience of the barely middle-class, small-town white girl experience of the late ’90s and early aughts.
Set in 2002 and 2003, Lady Bird follows its eponymous character over the course of her senior year of high school. Her hometown (Sacramento, which she dismisses as “the midwest of California”) is stifling. Her overworked mother (Laurie Metcalf) is caring but seemingly impossible to please. Her father (Tracy Letts) is becoming increasingly distant from the family and from life after the loss of his job. Smart but largely unmotivated in life so far – Lady Bird has decent SAT scores but average grades, and her extracurricular CV begins and ends with a brief season in the theater club – the 17-year-old’s only goal is to get away from all of it and go to school in New York. With post-9/11 terrorism fears keeping enrollment numbers down, she figures she has a decent chance of being admitted. Along the way, she experiences love, heartbreak, the process of figuring out who your real friends are, and the unsettling realization that your parents are people, too.
Despite hitting so many classic coming-of-age hallmarks, Lady Bird never feels anything but fresh (and refreshing). This is, in part, due to the the film’s remarkably realistic performances. That’s especially true of Metcalf, who is both formidable and vulnerable as a woman trying to keep her family and herself together, and a dynamite Ronan who nails everything from shoulder-slumping angst to the giddy paroxysms of adolescent excitement with her Lady Bird. It’s hard to feel like you’re veering anywhere near cliché when it often seems like these characters are just hanging out in the room with you.
It’s also because of the painstaking detail with which writer/director Gerwig, a Sacramento native herself, recreates the place, the period, and the people who lived through it all. The physical details are subtle but stunning. The costumes expertly capture that brief grace period between the worst raver-influenced mistakes of the late-‘90s and the true sartorial horror of almost everything about the aughts. The set design perfectly captures the teen girl bedroom aesthetic, filled with posters, the names of crushes scribbled on the walls, and a level of tidiness or lack thereof that always seems to be symbiotically connected to the psyche of the person who lives in it. Even Lady Bird’s slightly faded and likely homemade neon dye job is perfect, and a lot like what this reviewer was sporting on her head at the time.
The excitement, humiliation and all of the other strange and terrible and thrilling quirks of late adolescence are also on-point. From giggling over bath- and shower-based masturbation techniques, to awkwardly trying to cover your family’s financial situation as a social survival tool, to the off-kilter whims of the teachers who direct high school musicals, the agony, ecstasy, and mundanity of those years feels incredibly true to life. While much of this is very specific to a time and place, there’s also a certain universality to Gerwig’s exploration of restlessness, self-discovery, and growing up. (“I went to a catholic girls’ school in California,” I overheard a woman tell her companion on our way out of the press screening in a tone that was both wincing and wistful. “That’s exactly what it was like.” I went to a public school in Canada, and I often found myself thinking the exact same things.) This is easily both the best and most realistic film about a small-town girl who makes peace with her roots in the process of trying to run away from them since the criminally underrated 1999 Canadian classic New Waterford Girl.
As brilliantly rendered as the film is, however, it’s not what Gerwig recreates with Lady Bird but how she recreates it that truly makes the film such a marvel and a delight. Teenage girls – particularly white teenage girls – and those who used to be teenage girls and still feel a certain protectiveness over their younger selves, often see their faces and their bodies onscreen, but they so rarely see themselves. Adolescent women can be the source of exploitation, pandering, titillation, and often punchlines, but they’re rarely allowed to be complex or even recognizable to the young women who watch them. This is also somewhat true of the lower middle class, who can be sources of drama and condescension, but are rarely granted more nuance than that.
In Lady Bird, Gerwig cares about her characters enough to treat them with respect when they deserve it and to kindly skewer them when they deserve that. With grace, compassion, humor, and the occasional wincing wink to the somewhat myopic excesses of youth, the filmmaker has crafted a thrilling love letter to girls, and to growing up.