Lady Bird (2017)
Lady Bird is a deceptively ‘little’ cinematic gem which magically defies contemporary standard definitions of what makes a film ‘great’. There is no flashy CGI. There is no messianic drama involving an evil destructive force that poses an existential threat to ‘all life’. There is no grave historical reference (e.g., war heroes or a certain British Prime Minister who has been inspiring generations of desperate wannabes). There is no obligatory explosion, no dare-devil stunt, no car chase that showcases how daft one can be in the cockpit of a ludicrously expensive automobile when someone else is picking the tab and cleaning up the wreckage. What is more, it is completely devoid of what is normally considered ‘glamorous’: it represents no graphic sexuality, no physical objectification and no headline catching attire. It was filmed in what the protagonist calls the ‘Mid-West of California’, the allegedly ‘uninspiring’ state capital wherein she belongs to the ‘wrong side’ of the train track. On the streets of Sacramento, CA, there is no sign of menace that arouses our morbid fascination with which David Lynch built a career. And, finally, the story features no ‘chosen one’: the premise of Lady Bird, as we shall see, is as ordinary as a film can be. And yet, it is far better than the most.
The cinema in question is the directorial debut feature of Greta Gerwig, who made a name for herself as a screen writer as well as an actor (Frances Ha and Mistress America, for which Gerwig contributed as an actor as well as a co-writer for the writer/director Noah Baumbach). Both in her acting and writing, Gerwig is known for her what can be only described as ‘sophisticated’, ‘unique’, ‘smart’ or ‘exceptional’ sense of humour rooted in her own experience of having grown up in Northern California with white-middle class background at the tail end of the 20th century and having become an adult in the NYC in the early 21st century. Hence it is no surprise that Lady Bird is somewhat autobiographical: it follows a rite of passage of a teenage girl from her own hometown. Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior from a local Catholic high-school. Set in 2002, Christine’s family is economically struggling. Her strong-willed mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), works a double shift as a nurse, and her loving father, Larry (Tracy Letts), has been hunting for a job without success. On top of this, her brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), despite his degree from UC Berkeley, has been unemployed and recently moved back to his parents’ house with his girlfriend. In short, there is a lot of bleakness in the backdrop of this story, and naturally Christine does everything in her power to escape from the ‘banality’ imposed upon her. She demands everyone to address her as ‘Lady Bird’. She dyes her hair in a strange shade of red. And, most importantly, she is hell-bent on applying to the universities in the East Coast, and clashes with her mother who tirelessly reminds her that the family simply cannot afford to support such an ‘aspiration’.
Lady Bird is not only a welcome break from the cinematic conventions of our day; it is a truly fascinating work whose virtue is strangely elusive. Despite being accessible and enjoyable, it is hard to determine the reasons why Lady Bird is different from virtually all the coming-of-age stories we have come to know. It goes without saying that Lady Bird enjoys an outstanding cast and the direction. Although many of the actors are relatively unknown, each fits the respective role naturally, so that one becomes curious as to which roles he/she has played previously. A special mention must be made for two actors: Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts offer solid performance to the point where one begins to wonder how these respective characters’ lives have been, and what lies ahead for them. Once again, Saoirse Ronan demonstrates just how gifted she is; since her impressive appearance in Atonement, she has been captivating the audience and critics with every role she has played. As she impressively led the cast in Brooklyn, however, we have anticipated the Irish star to take on more mature roles, the expectation which is verified by the list of forthcoming features (She will appear as Florence in On Chisel Beach, Nina in The Seagull, and the main protagonist in Mary, The Queen of Scott). Then, suddenly, she surprises us as a spirited teenager from Northern California who is facing the first crossroad of her life. Of course, this is the age of which Ronan has a good grasp from her experience in life and acting. We have seen Ronan being a saving grace in the movies that do not match her calibre for so many years, and she played teenage girls in the vast majority of them. She was just as captivating as an eternally adolescent vampire (Byzantium), a genetically modified killing machine (Hanna), a sulky urbane teen who is thrown into the midst of a military crisis (How I Live Now), and Peter Jackson’s lamentably over-directed and miscast (Mark Wahlberg?!) Lovely Bones as the spirit of a rape/homicide victim. Of course, Ronan is fantastic as ever in Ryan Gosling’s directorial debut, Lost River, which provides a regrettably rare occasion wherein the project really benefits from Ronan’s excellence. Fortunately Lady Bird falls in this category, and what she showcased in Lady Bird is truly remarkable: for the first time in her career, she was able to apply her exceptional talent to play an ordinary teenage girl in a commonplace situation. She was absolutely committed to the role in that she appeared little or no make-up in order to show how the skin of a teenage girl looks like. With such a thoughtfulness combined with her extraordinary ability, there should be no surprise at all: Ronan convinces us that a typical teenager can make a lasting impression. It is a powerful testimonial to the extent of this young actor’s artistry.
Incidentally the way Ronan excels in this movie reveals something about Gerwig’s quality as a film director and the secret of Lady Bird’s magic. Whilst Gerwig needed all the gift and craft that Ronan provides, it is Gerwig who created the opportunity for the Irish actor. And, despite the impression one might have upon seeing the movie, Gerwig’s approach is not an easy one, for there is a distinct risk in telling a commonplace story without referring to some historically or politically significant development as a backdrop to anchor the narrative: a chance of being overlooked. It would have been indeed easy for Gerwig to exploit significant events such as 9/11, Financial Crisis of 2007-2008, or War on Terror, to contextualise her debut feature. Producers and script doctors would love to throw in some ‘juicy’ elements to broaden the appeal of the movie, yet Gerwig painstakingly eschews from every one of them. The story is situated not in the NYC or Detroit, but in Sacramento. Whilst the protagonist is a student of a Catholic school, Gerwig is not interested in politicising the situation. The result is a delightfully anti-theoretical work that simply, and sincerely, tells a story of a young girl and her family. Whilst it is all too easy to describe this rare cinematic feat with adjectives such as ‘unique’ and ‘sophisticated’, it is important to ponder: What does make this deceptively ‘little’ cinematic wonder so important? Is it the authenticity as seen in Ronan’s incredible lack of vanity in her portrayal of our protagonist? Is it Gerwig’s sensibility about human stories which must have been cultivated by her experience in the NYC, a vibrant city that inspired and nurtured the likes of Jarmusch and Hartley? If that is the case, what does make Gerwig’s work so distinct from her predecessors’? The key to understand Gerwig’s quality could be found in one of the scenes in the movie: when Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) comments on the quality of Christine’s essay on her hometown, she tells our protagonist that she was moved by her profound love for it. Christine, who only wants to escape from Sacramento, is naturally surprised and questions the reasons for her interpretation. Then Sister replies: a caring gaze for something/someone amounts to love. The advisor turned out to be correct: Christine has outgrown her hometown and is impatiently getting herself ready to explore what might lie beyond the confine of the only world she has ever known, yet a single essay betrays the true feeling toward it. This loving gaze toward what is commonly considered ‘unremarkable’ makes Gerwig a unique voice in the contemporary world of cinema. In this, Gerwig is comparable to the likes of Wim Wenders who once professed the act of seeing as the act of love (Faraway, So Close!, 1993). In the world dominated by a dogmatism that solely judges the value of stories by the pace and twist of a plot and ‘character development’, the story such as Lady Bird is becoming increasingly rare. Now that Wenders is mostly concerned himself with documentaries, one can only hope for Gerwig’s continuing success.
Before the closure, I wish to invite you to ask one more question: Why should a cinema as magical as Lady Bird considered ‘little’? This is a question as important as the other problems regarding the movie industry, such as the lack of gender equality. Female artists are grotesquely under-represented and under-rewarded, and the opportunity to direct or lead so-called a ‘Blockbuster’ is almost non-existent. These are indeed serious problems. Hence it is an imperative for us to demand the fairness: there should be indeed more female artists directing epic tales featuring female characters. Yet I consider it equally important to question: Why must a personal story of an ordinary character such as Christine be considered less than a ‘Big Movie’? To answer this question properly, I suggest you to sit and spend two hours savouring this delightful feature, then ponder seriously what makes a cinema a worthy artistic achievement. Only then, Lady Bird will offer you a realisation that is truly liberating: There is no story that is too small.