Figuring out life is challenging for the best of us, and if we’re really honest with ourselves, we can often find ourselves defeated in the attempt.
But that comes much later (or if you’re lucky not at all), and when you’re young like Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), there is still an expectation that you will be successful in crafting exactly the kind of life you envisage.
It’s certainly how the earnestly optimistic student approaches her life in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, the title taken from the name Christine has chosen for herself and which she insists everyone use, including her mum and dad, Marion and Larry (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts respectively) and the staff and students at the Catholic school she attends on a scholarship.
At first glance, this act of defiant self-defining seems like a small gesture and is often dismissed as such by the adults around her; but for Lady Bird, it’s a powerful statement of her individuality and sense of self, part of her aspirational attempts to move beyond the small world, as she sees it, of her life in Sacramento, California.
These aspirations are hampered to a considerable degree by the parlous financial state of Lady Bird’s family who have failed, despite endless hard work and tenacity, to seize their small slice of the American Dream.
Lady Bird’s brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) are living at home and working in a supermarket, despite degrees from UC Berkeley, her father stands to lose his job at any time, and and her mother is working double shifts as a nurse.
They’re not even close to living the dream, and to some extent, Lady Bird internally blames that on lack of effort, believing that you can do what you like, such as get into East Coast Ivy Colleges, if you simply try hard enough.
It’s not that simple of course, as her mum makes it clear in one particularly fractious scene where she pointedly outlines to her daughter just how far she is where she thought she’d be in life.
But despite the darker, rain-less side of the American Dream being lived out around her all day every day, save for when she is at school in a tonier part of town which is talked about in hushed tones of envy and longing by Lady Bird and best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, who is absolutely superb in the role), she holds fast to the idea that anything is possible.
Her expression of her optimistic tenacity often comes across as hard-nosed arrogance and rudeness, especially in the midst of her love/hate/love relationship with her equally-determined mother – they clash, notes her father, precisely because they are so similar – but Gerwig, who wrote the script and set it in her hometown, and Ronan’s sparkling performance, invest the titular character with thoroughly relatable every-personness that makes the film inherently affecting and deeply accessible.
Lady Bird is as bullish and pushy as she is because she knows how much opposes her dreams of getting to somewhere “more cultured” like the East Coast and yet she is also gloriously naive about how hard it is to realise your “best self” – yes she uses this term at one point, during one of the many passive-aggressive mother-daughter scenes in the film – and in fact, the best version of her life.
Watching her grapple with this as she joins a theatre group at school with Julie, meets Danny (Lucas Hedges), with whom she falls in love ’til some uncomfortable secrets emerge, and then moves onto precocious rich kid Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) and befriends popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), is illuminating because you see in Lady Bird the same journey we all go on.
That trip from thinking everything is ours to grab when we want it on our terms to realising there are multiple variables at work that will make that hard, though not impossible to achieve, is laid in quiet, nuanced glory, with Lady Bird learning that people are not always who you assume them to be.
Lady Bird is replete with a great many life lessons but refreshingly, despite the film taking place in her last year in high school, they do not take place through the usual high school movie narrative prism.
Nor are they great melodramatic road to Damascus moments that reek of manipulative grandstanding that telegraphs great epiphanies and messages from a great height or distance.
Lady Bird, which is not as quirky as the trailer suggests but is very real and grounded and contemplatively thoughtful, not to mention witty with delicious comic timing punctuating the tenser, darker moments, is content to quietly tell its story, to let its protagonist stumble, rise and fall back again and have her moments of life-defining realisations occur in small, out of the way scenes that nevertheless carry great import.
Take the scene towards the end of the film when Lady Bird realises her new cool friends, all affected ennui and faux philosophical earnestness, are everything she is not, rather than everything she think she wants, and she goes back to Julie, begs for her forgiveness and off to the prom where the two best friends reestablish a bond that is never really broken.
The scene, which is funny, sad and just a little defiant, is emblematic of the film as a whole which does an expansively rich and insightfully-touching job of communicating how knowing what you want and getting it, especially at the start of your life where you’re still appropriating the social awareness building blocks needed to make it happen, can feel like they’re separated by an unbridgeable chasm.
It is, of course, navigable as Lady Bird begins to discover post-high school, a little chastened but still hopeful, but comes with all kinds of compromises good and bad, and a growing sense that things can be a very good thing indeed, just not what you expect them to be when you first set out on this grand adventure called life.