“The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome,” declares Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) in the driest tone possible, as if making a vocal frown (as any properly angsty teen should), while clearly looking proud to have come up with such a clever maxim.
Through these viscerally recognizable high school moments—from the question “How do you know when it’s working?” to a montage of horrible school play auditions, to nuns demanding “six inches for the Holy Spirit” from affectionate slow dancers—the teen drama comes of age in Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.” The film is a dazzlingly realistic representation of American teenagerdom, and its poignancy hurts like growing pains all over again.
The sepia glow of golden California sunshine illuminates much of the film, which serves as a love letter to Lady Bird’s (and Gerwig’s) hometown of Sacramento. By her teenaged years, Lady Bird is sick of the place where she’s lived her whole life, and constantly complains about the city’s blandness. However, Gerwig juxtaposes Lady Bird’s grumbling with romantic shots that reveal the beauty of busted up convenience stores and Spanish-style churches. It’s not until Lady Bird enters the blue-grey landscape of New York City that she truly loves and misses the rolling Sacramento highways.
Lady Bird’s love-hate relationship with her hometown is not unique, because everything is a love-hate relationship when you’re an emotionally volatile teenager. Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf), is especially touching. Their dynamic constantly switches between infinite tenderness and infinite loathing. One moment, they’re tearing up as their audio cassette of “The Grapes of Wrath” winds to a close. The next, Marion is yelling, “You’re not even worthy of state tuition!” and Lady Bird jumps out of the moving car, breaking her wrist. “Lady Bird” demonstrates especially well how any situation can go from being the best thing that’s ever happened to being the end of the world: All it takes is your mom yelling at you to pick your clothes up off the floor.
This film is a comedy, but its humor comes from naked moments of painful relatability, rather than elaborately contrived premises or jokes. So many of the distressingly awkward conversations in this movie are hilarious not just because they’re distressingly awkward, but also because Lady Bird is far from the first one to greet her crush with “Come here often?” upon running into him and his family at the local supermarket. Characters try so hard to be cool or witty or impressive or funny, and they always fail even harder. Lady Bird’s dark and broody crush, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), is both ridiculous and recognizable in the way he doesn’t believe in money (“I’m trying to live by bartering alone,”) or cellphones (“It’ll be a matter of time before they’re in our brains,”) or store-bought cigarettes (“I only smoke hand-rolled. Never industrially produced,”), and the triteness of these statements make them funnier and more endearing.
“Lady Bird” is primarily focused on the white teenage experience, like most teen movies, but does a good job of incorporating important issues like class, mental illness, sexuality, and race into its narrative. Unconsciously hurting her parents, Lady Bird often often says that the McPhersons live on the “wrong side of the tracks,” but the family unquestionably must deal with financial stress. Lady Bird shops exclusively at thrift shops not just for the sake of being indie, but because her family can’t afford clothes that aren’t secondhand. Marion is almost perpetually worn out by her long shifts at odd hours, and the chronic stress about money contributes to her husband’s bouts of clinical depression. Lady Bird’s romantic pursuits are messy, just as they are in real life, as Lady Bird and the people around her come to terms with their sexual identities. When Lady Bird finds out that she didn’t get into UC Berkeley, she implies in a fit of rage that her brother only got in because he is Latino, alluding to an affirmative action debate that is still happening today.
Sometimes, Lady Bird is a little brat who doesn’t seem to know how to use her brain properly. She is undeniably cringeworthy, but also so lovable and observant and perceptive. All the characters in this film, like all the characters in real life, contain multitudes. “Lady Bird” is real life projected on the big screen, and the ugly parts are as painstakingly reproduced as the beautiful ones.