Chatham, N.Y. — The highly anticipated sneak preview at the Crandell Theatre Saturday night (October 28) was a smash. “Lady Bird,” written and directed by the gifted Greta Gerwig, was a delicious comedy/drama. The FilmColumbia festival (like present-day politics) was heavily laden with serious topics such as racism, rape, anti-immigrant prejudices, and death and dying. This film had a serious story to tell – mother/daughter conflicts, coming of age affairs, rebellious teenagers – but it struck a hopeful and touching note.
This film had its international premiere at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival to a “rapturous standing ovation.” Gerwig told a quasi-autobiographical story of Christine (also known as Lady Bird, her self-selected name) going to Catholic school, growing up in Sacramento (“the Midwest of California”) and wanting to flee its middle-class bourgeoisie. The movie is prefaced by a quote from Joan Didion: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”
Saoirse Ronan totally inhabits the role of Lady Bird. She has been on my radar as an amazing actress since “Atonement” and, more recently, starred in the awesome love story “Brooklyn.” Can she become Gerwig’s muse while she establishes her directorial excellence? The film begins with her mother, Marion, (Laurie Metcalf who is brilliant as always) and Lady Bird driving to a nearby college for a visit. Her mother belittles her dreams of escaping to the more expensive but ultimately more “intellectual” experience at an eastern college. Metcalf blithely delivers her hilarious but cutting line, “With your work ethic, you should go to city college, then jail, and then back to city college.” Lady Bird is so fed up with her mother’s nagging she falls out of the moving car. She has a bright pink cast for the next few months with choice anti-mother sentiments written on it.
The acting is uniformly excellent. Tracy Letts is her father, Larry, who believes in Lady Bird’s dreams and helps her achieve them even though he is out of work and depressed over the family finances. She meets a sweet boy, Danny, in her high school theatre group, (Lucas Hedges – always fine) and they have a not-so-torrid relationship which sadly falls flat. But then she meets the sexy bad boy, Kyle, (Timothee Chalomet in a totally different role from his gay adolescent in “Call Me By Your Name”) who almost breaks her heart. Beanie Feldstein is her best friend, Julie (fun fact: Jonah Hill’s little sister), who keeps her grounded during this difficult year.
But the really important relationship here is the mother/daughter one. Even though their relationship is fraught with disappointment, nasty snipes and a lot of anger, there are moments when the underlying love comes through, moments such as when Lady Bird offhandedly asked her mom deep questions about the right age to have sex and the joyful moment when they find the perfect dress at the thrift shop.
When Lady Bird does go off to college, she and her mother do find this unconditional love and Lady Bird becomes Christine again, deciding it’s a good name after all. Even with all the missteps and struggles of the past year, you definitely feel that Christine and her family are on a good path. Gerwig’s comedic timing and punchy dialogue combine to make this a very enjoyable film with some real-life concerns.
Gotham Awards/Independent Film Project deservedly nominated Gerwig for Breakthrough Director and Best Screenplay and Ronan for Best Actress.