A fitting metaphor for the state of Millennial lives more generally, Lady Bird is a messy mash-up of bad relationships and unhealthy attitudes toward sex. And yet, its honesty and authenticity unmasks many of those elements, forcing the ugliness of the fallen world into the open, and making some small concessions toward redemption.
Christine, who calls herself Lady Bird, is like most subjects of coming-of-age films. She’s angsty, impulsive, and selfish, with a load of ambition and a strong sense of self-importance. At the risk of sounding like an imitation omniscient narrator, I think this is intentional. Director Greta Gerwig has made a film in which her protagonist is very nearly unlikable, but also relatable. She has a mom who at times swings dangerously close to emotionally abusive. She goes to Catholic school but hates tradition. She lives in California but longs for New York. She sucks at relationships, but longs for sex.
Lady Bird’s nearly incessant conflict with her mother forms the heart of the film, thanks to some especially good performances from Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf. Over time it becomes apparent what Lady Bird’s issue is (though her mother also has plenty): she projects her problems outward, when her real issues lie inward.
This is represented effectively through Gerwig’s terrific art direction, which brings out a sunny color palette and everyday shooting locations that show off the local, non-Hollywood-ized veneer of southern California. The camera work by (X) is very effective, yet subtle, and shows us everything to love about Sacramento even as Lady Bird derides it, bringing out the core theme once again – deal with you, not your surroundings.
Lady Bird does learn this lesson in the end . . . Sort of. Her change is a matter of degrees, but still present. The film is perhaps rightly summed up by saying “a selfish brat learns to be slightly less selfish.” But there’s a realism to this that is valuable. The instant, 180 degree turn that we hear about in sanitized testimonies rarely measures up to reality. The sad, secret truth is that most of the time, even dedicated Christians change with difficulty over periods of time. If anything, stories like Lady Bird remind us of our own impetuous immaturity, even if it does so through a character who is at times difficult to root for.
It also does so through some methods that are, at times, questionable. The film seems to engage in edginess for its own sake, with a needless shot of a pornographic magazine, for example, or the quite vulgar heckling of a pro-life activist. In moments, the line between exploring Lady Bird’s character and relishing in an R rating becomes difficult to identify.
And so the film is, in a way not unlike life itself, a messy smorgasbord of good, bad, and ugly. It’s full of messy relationships, yet correctly identifies implicitly many of the issues that cause them. It contains a very realistic (though not gratuitous) sex scene, but also unmasks the ugliness and pain of sex without commitment.
To say that every negative is met with a redemptive counter would be a gross overstatement, however. I believe the most accurate thing I can say about the film is that it is frequently profane, but always honest, and that causes it to right a few wrongs in the process.