Greta Gerwig's bittersweet new feature Lady Bird is as much an apology as it as a love letter. Near the end of the film Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson (brilliantly played by Saoirse Ronan) finds a letter from her mother that spells out all of mum's deepest feelings for, and about, her daughter. All the stuff mum (equally brilliantly played by Laurie Metcalf) lacked either the confidence or the words to articulate face to face.
In a similar vein, Gerwig has looked back at her late teenage years in the Californian state capital of Sacramento and scripted them into a tight hour and a half of low key drama that seem to look back both in love, fondness, and a little regret at her youth. The film is both love letter and apology to Sacramento, to California, to the early noughties, to her friends, to her family, and, perhaps most of all, to herself.
Ronan plays Lady Bird (a self chosen nickname that seems to owe nothing to Lyndon B. Johnson's wife) as a mixture of defiance, pretention, confusion, confidence, and no little gaucheness. She's both endearing and alienating at the same time. She disrupts lessons, she argues (constantly) with her mum, she dreams of New York (or Connecticut, where the writers live), she swears at inappropriate moments, and she lies to her friends and family to concoct a better life for herself. She's the archetypal teenager who in realising she's smarter than most of the others in her class mistakes that for thinking she knows everything.
Of course that kind of character has a huge potential for being annoying or irritating so it's with great credit to both Gerwig's script and direction, and Ronan's nuanced portrayal, that Lady Bird comes across as anything but that. This film does a great job of excavating those teenage feelings and presenting them to us to view with the dirt of the lived experience still on them. While at times you might want to give her a shake and tell her to get over herself, there are also occasions when you feel like screaming to her mother 'why don't you just give her a hug', or to one of her two unsuitable, though in very different ways, suitors 'just kiss her, man'.
Lady Bird attends a Catholic school in Sacramento where she dreams of making it either in mathematics or drama (neither fields in which she excels). She doesn't help her case by constantly backchatting her principals and is sad when her overweight friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) gets both better grades and a better role in the school production of The Tempest. Lady Bird struggles to hide her jealousy and their friendship, forged in the scoffing of illicitly procured communion wafers and giggling about boy's willies, is imperilled.
Home life is fractious too. Mum struggles to express love and Dad (Tracy Letts) has lost his job in middle age and with it his confidence. He's sinking slowly, yet gracefully, in to depression. Also sharing the house are Lady Bird's adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelley (Marielle Scott), kindly, if a little poorly sketched, alternative types with nearly as many piercings each as they're given lines in the film.
On top of this Lady Bird's just beginning to embark on her first romantic adventures which, initially at least, seem to offer an escape route from the stultifying humdrum and reduced circumstances of her own existence. First boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges, on excellent form just as he was in both Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) is kind, supportive, endearingly awkward and fumbling, and so 'respectful' he refuses to touch Lady Bird's breasts even when she's offering him.
Lady Bird's other love interest comes in the form of conspiracy theorist, know-it-all, self absorbed Kyle (Timothee Chalamet showing his acting chops by playing an almost mirror image of his adorable character in Call Me By Your Name). Kyle honks, rather than knocks, when he picks Lady Bird up for the prom, he says he doesn't believe in money (while all the while sponging off his rich parents), and his lovemaking technique is about as expressive as his limited conversation. He's a bit of a prick, truth be told.
As the penny drops and Lady Bird realises that some of these cool kids are just shallow and that the deep waters of her family and true friends are far more nourishing and rewarding we reach the heart of this film. It's a rites of passage story - and a fairly traditional one at that (don't drink, don't lie, don't go with boys, don't move to the big city, love your family, love your (real) friends, be thankful for what you've got, and be true to your school) - but it's done with such panache, humour, and understatement it fails to irk and in fact leaves us with a lovely warm glow as we reflect on its marvellous evocation of youth and all of its, at the time, very confusing choices and scruples.
The gentle humour is neatly balanced with pensive scenes, the performances are great throughout (Ronan and Metcalf particularly but Hedges, Feldstein, and Letts also deserve acknowledgement as do Stephen McKinley Henderson as lachrymose Father Leviatch and Lois Smith as Sister Sarah John, thankfully, played as a kindly elder rather than, as protocol seems to insist, a sadistic monster), and Sacramento itself puts in a decent cameo appearance as a city that really doesn't look so bad after all.
I began this piece by saying Lady Bird is a bittersweet film. But it's the sweetness that wins out every time. This love letter has been scented with the magnolia blossoms that just so happen to bloom in Sacramento each spring.
Thanks to Joe, Isaac, Teresa, and Adam for sharing this lovely evening at the Curzon Bloomsbury (and later in Ravi Shankar's) with me.