Authenticity is fleeting in American teen comedies, even when they shade over into coming-of-age tales. In her autobiographical directing debut, Greta Gerwig is obviously after authenticity above everything else—it’s mainly there in the subversive dialogue—but she’s too experienced as an actor and indie film fixture not to want to get as many laughs as she can, and the purposely commonplace quality of her setting—early 00s Sacramento, which one person calls the “Midwest of California”—works to emphasize the extraordinary self-possession of the titular character, high school senior Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to be called Lady Bird. Extraordinary protagonists are, of course, the standard of teen comedies, but mainly in constrast to their peers. Here, what makes Lady Bird special is her relationship with her parents, in particular her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a hard-working nurse who recognizes what’s extraordinary about her daughter but still has to throw her authoritative weight around because she panics at the idea that Lady Bird is unequipped for the world, despite her intelligence and sensitivity. While driving back from a tour of colleges, the pair listen to an audio book of The Grapes of Wrath and get into a bizarre argument about how to appreciate the novel, which has brought them both to tears. In protest to her mother’s haughtiness, Lady Bird flings herself out of the moving car.
It’s a joke, but a joke with consequences for both, and the marvelous thing about Gerwig’s script is that nobody gets away with anything, even good intentions. As with all teen comedies the main thematic thrust is school status and popularity, and when Lady Bird starts avoiding her BFF Julie (Beanie Feldstein) in order to hang out with rich kid Jenna (Odeya Rush) the viewer feels a betrayal that’s both expected and peculiarly hurtful, since Lady Bird herself understands what a cliche she’s become. Similarly, she plays off two suitors, both from “better” families than hers. The fact that Danny (Lucas Hedges) is nicer than the more garishly intellectual Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) is another cliche that doesn’t hurt the film because Lady Bird herself keeps telling herself she’s on the wrong track anyway. As a result the requisite letdown after the requisite losing-her-virginity scene is less dramatic, and more in line with Lady Bird’s singular way of confronting life as something that will inevitably disappoint her.
That’s because Lady Bird’s worldview is informed by class, another standard theme of teen comedies but one that Gerwig has elevated above all others. If Lady Bird is closer affectionately to her father (Tracy Letts) than to her mother, it’s not because of the usual sympathetic father tropes (though there is that), but rather because he really does elicit sympathy. Having recently lost his job, his depression has kicked in and he can’t afford his medication. Though Marion has to work double shifts, she doesn’t gain her daughter’s respect as a result, a dramatic point that Gerwig throws at us—and Lady Bird—with surprising coldness. Even her Catholic school education, which was hoisted on her because her younger, adopted brother’s public school was the site of a knife attack, is seen as a class-centered gambit and one that Lady Bird resists more for what it says about her parents’ lack of money than any residual skepticism about religion. Gerwig knows that any adolescent tale is going to be about the struggle of an ego to escape from the strictures of innocence, but she also understands that the audience lives in the bigger world, and she knows that world well herself. That she could incorporate it so vividly and accurately in her comedy is a feat worth celebrating.
Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024), Toho Cinemas Chanter (050-6868-5001).
Lady Bird home page in Japanese
photo (c) 2017 InterActiveCorp Films LLC/Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24