Illustration | Yilin Zhu
A nuanced directorial debut that shows Greta Gerwig as more than an indie-darling
Everyone has their own coming-of-age tale, maybe even one they feel compelled to share. A recurring problem within this genre of film, however, is finding a fresh spin without falling into the tropes that many coming-of-age flicks have set forth. In Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut and screenplay, she masters the genre—a mastery that is tied to her understanding and representation of home.
Set in Sacramento, California, the film follows 17-year-old Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), preferred name Lady Bird, in her final year of high school. Loosely based on Gerwig’s own upbringing in Northern California, Sacramento is home for Gerwig as well as for Lady Bird. She represents Sacramento as a familiar place—one that Lady Bird thinks she knows—just like we as viewers think we know the seemingly stock characters and plot Gerwig presents.
There’s the overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf), the gay first-boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges), and the unpopular best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), among others. The issues Lady Bird has with these three characters could potentially create a formulaic plot, however, the manner in which Gerwig has her characters deal with these issues feels fresh and nuanced.
With the mother, it’s a disagreement about university. Lady Bird dreams of leaving Sacramento and, despite her mother’s objections, applies and is accepted into east coast universities—leading to a mother-daughter falling out. As Lady Bird prepares to leave home, Gerwig cuts between her packing up her childhood bedroom and her mother’s many failed attempts at writing a letter—implying the pair will make amends. But this never happens. Her mother drops her off at the airport, refusing to walk her to the gate, and drives away. Immediately, with this distance from Lady Bird, her mother regrets her decision. She turns back to the airport, but Lady Bird has already left and there is no heartfelt mother-daughter reconciliation that the viewer would expect—we are left solely with the painful stubbornness and inevitable regret that the mother experiences, as she is not able to take her words back, and say how she truly feels.
At the beginning of the film, Lady Bird meets Danny, a classmate who later becomes the ideal boyfriend. Everything works out perfectly—girl from the “wrong side of the tracks” falls for a boy from the wealthier side of town—until she finds Danny kissing another boy. The next scene shows Lady Bird and Julie crying and listening to the radio, and we’re initially incentivised to resent Danny for what he’s done. He’s not mentioned until the latter half of the film, when he shows up to the local café where Lady Bird works. Instead of being angry or making it about herself, she understands Danny’s actions and the need to conceal his sexuality from his stifling Catholic family, allowing the viewer to empathise and see Danny as more than an archetype.
Perhaps the most formulaic element is the falling out that Lady Bird has with her best friend, Julie. After Danny, Lady Bird moves onto the aloof and pretentious Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a friend of the popular Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush). The progression away from Julie and towards Jenna, though a trope in many coming-of-age stories, feels natural, showing that friends do drift apart and there doesn’t always need to be a reason. Lady Bird, however, realizes she preferred what she had with Julie and they eventually reunite—the distance allows them to re-evaluate.
Gerwig mirrors this ability to change one’s mind with the conclusion of the film. With distance from one another, her characters are able to step away and rethink. Lady Bird leaves home and finds that there was more to Sacramento than she realized, and shifts her perspective on home.
A slightly different direction would alter the film, but Gerwig manages to turn archetypes into multi-faceted characters, creating a debut that is so uniquely Greta.