Scott, is this next movie about President Johnson’s wife?
No, Greg, it’s about basketball legend Larry Bird’s wife. Or is it? Let’s recap.
We’re introduced to Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan). She’s a 2002 high school senior who is about as average as you might expect. But she has ambitions to go to college – anywhere that isn’t in Sacramento, CA where she lives. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf) wants her to apply to community college so that she’ll stay close to home. Her father (Tracy Letts) is recently fired from his job. And her half-brother and his girlfriend live with them too.
Lady Bird joins her school’s theater group and begins dating a boy named Danny (Lucas Hedges). The relationship ends when she discovers that Danny is gay. She then begins dating Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a member of a locally popular band. This relationship also ends badly when she sleeps with Kyle and discovers he lied about being a virgin. Meanwhile, Lady Bird secretly applies to colleges on the east coast and butts heads frequently with her emotionally abusive mother.
Lady Bird is a well-crafted film that has little to offer in terms of story. There aren’t any revelations here. It’s the story of an underachieving girl who wants to go away to college. More than anything she wants to get out of town. She doesn’t apply herself to her studies so that she can make her way in on her best merits, but instead, gets waitlisted and at the last minute gets accepted because someone else dropped out. She makes simple mistakes that high-school girls make in uninspiring ways. She has fights with her mother that typical teens have. This is very much a cliched look at an average teenage girl’s life in 2002 – perhaps a bit autobiographical and so somewhat self-indulgent.
Greg, you make an interesting observation about this film’s lack of story. My interpretation of the film is that it concentrates on a thin slice of the hero’s journey, namely, the prelude to the departure into the unfamiliar world. Lady Bird is a would-be hero who feels trapped at home, which she finds stultifying. Her mother is a trainwreck and the town of Sacramento serves as a prison from which her heroic self must break free. While this story focuses only on a tiny slice of the hero’s journey, it is a fascinating and satisfying slice. Saoirse Ronan does a phenomenal job with the character, although she is too old to pass for a high-school student.
As the prelude to the full hero quest, this film leaves us with a feeling of incompletion. We just reviewed the film, Wonder, which portrays a child’s full journey from despair to triumph. In Lady Bird, we’re hopeful that our hero will triumph on the east coast but we’ll never know. The bulk of this movie is one glimpse after another of Lady Bird’s mistakes and awkward moments — the kinds of things pre-heroes do. Her disastrous relationships with Danny and Kyle are good examples, not to mention her crazy decision to jump out of a car going at high speed to escape her crazy mother. At the end of the film when Lady Bird finally changes her hair and drops the ‘Lady Bird’ nickname, we know she is finally ready to go on her journey.
Laurie Metcalf is wonderful as the mother who is desperate to keep her daughter at home. There isn’t much left for mom and holding on to her last child becomes her only goal. Mom is a damaged woman who uses guilt and guile to keep “Lady Bird” in line. Despite constantly exposing her daughter’s weaknesses, it’s clear she loves Christine and is working hard to keep her family together.
More than anything, this movie is a study of relationships. It does a good job of showing us the tensions between Christine and the people in her life. Still, I look for a story that I can take home. I want to see more exposure of the lessons the hero learns. For Christine, it’s her relationship with her mother that changes rather than Christine herself.
You describe this as a prelude to the hero’s journey – and I can see how you might come to that conclusion. But for me, one of the evidences of the hero’s emergence is a change in attire and in this case, a change in name. Christine sheds the “Lady Bird” moniker and accepts her “given” name as her identity. She’s come to grips with who she is. And she had to leave home to find the basis for the relationship with her mother. As such, it is a coming of age story, just not one that I enjoyed very much.
Lady Bird is a well-crafted story of a young woman’s efforts to pull free from her familiar, stifling world. Her dysfunctional family dynamics pose a considerable hindrance to her desire and ability to attend college 3,000 miles away, with her damaged mother proving to be especially obstructionistic. We’re also treated to the inevitable disasters of a young person’s first few romantic dalliances. The film shows us a mini-hero’s journey nested within the larger hero’s journey of her life, and I was both impressed and moved by her story. I award this film 4 Reels out of 5.
We’ve described Lady Bird’s heroic arc in enough detail, so no need for further elaboration. We’re denied the full story of Lady Bird’s life, and thus this movie did leave me wanting more. That in itself can be both a good thing and a bad thing. I give our protagonist 3 Hero points out of 5. Regarding transformations, we witness our hero metamorphosize from her self-appointed label of ‘Lady Bird’ to her true self, Christine. The transformations are fun to watch and rang true to me. I award this film 4 transformative Deltas out of 5.
I have similar problems with Lady Bird as I had with Ronan’s other coming-of-age film: Brooklyn. In both films there are few conflicts and the ones our hero has are solved in simplistic ways. I kept wanting something to happen in this story, and it never did. We’re treated to one lackluster event after another culminating in a lackluster transformation. I give Lady Bird just 2 Reels out of 5.
Christine is an unremarkable young woman who doesn’t try very hard to get what she wants. And in the end, she does get what she wants but only through the luck of the draw. I give her just 2 Heroes out of 5. Finally, her transformation is simplistic and a bit saccharine. I give her just 2 Deltas out of 5.
As a postscript, I would like to call out Laurie Metcalf’s performance as the stand-out element of this film. This is a conflicted woman who is full of love trying to hold her family together despite myriad forces that are pulling her world apart. This was a complicated character that Metcalf portrayed skillfully. I look forward to nominations for her work in this film.