I love it when an opening scene of a movie just perfectly encapsulates what kind of movie you’re about to watch. You only get one shot at a first impression after all, and when a feature film is able to come out of the gate swinging with a few minutes of footage that sums up the identity of what’s to come so concisely, well, it’s a real treat to experience. “Lady Bird” has this kind of opening sequence, one that depicts our lead character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her mom Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf) driving home from a visit to a nearby college. We get a chance to see these two united in being captivated by an audiobook recording of John Steinbeck’s classic novel “The Grapes of Wrath,” but once that’s done, it isn’t long before friction emerges between the two of them.
Right away, Lady Bird’s wants and desires are laid out — she’s tired of her life, she’s tired of living in Sacramento, California, she’s even tired of living in the year 2002. She wants to go somewhere, preferably on the East Coast, where there’s culture and where she can possibly become involved in something bigger than herself. Lady Bird shoots for the stars and never looks back, while her more experienced mother recognizes the financial hardships their family is going through and is trying to keep her daughter firmly on the ground. By the end of this five-ish minute long stretch of cinema, you should be able to determine if “Lady Bird” is gonna be up your alley or not. For me, “Lady Bird” was already winning me over and then some by the end of this scene and by the end of the movie, I was as riveted by the whole production as Lady Bird and her Mom were by that audiobook recording of “The Grapes of Wrath.”
The mother/daughter dynamic seen in the opening sequence of “Lady Bird” is the crux of the plot that follows, but since we’re seeing this story primarily from Lady Bird’s perspective, that’s far from the only aspect of this characters life that to be put into the spotlight here. We also get to see Lady Bird navigating her private Catholic High School as well as trying to covertly apply for prestigious colleges and developing a crush on theater kid Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges). The writer/director of this project, Greta Gerwig, has been upfront on making this movie as a female-perspective response, of sorts, to the likes of “The 400 Blows” and “Boyhood,” and like those two motion pictures, there’s an inescapable sense of naturalism imbued in the entire story.
It’s fascinating to read that the story is apparently not based on exact events from Greta Gerwig’s own life since there’s a level of specificity to various plot points and character details that feel like they could only come from real life. Replicating reality is such a difficult thing to accomplish in any artistic medium but it’s something Lady Bird is able to do with ease and skill at a shockingly frequent level. As if all of those facets of the writing weren’t good enough already, Greta Gerwig’s screenplay also populates the world of Lady Bird with plenty of memorable side characters who are able to have distinctive personalities without shattering the down-to-Earth aesthetic of the movie. Even characters who just show up for one scene like a college advisor or a convenience store clerk leave a memorable impression on this project.
The various memorable characters are brought to life by a troop of actors who certainly bring their A-game under the direction of Gerwig. Saoirse Ronan, armed with an American accent that sounds incredibly realistic (Ronan herself was raised in Ireland), departs heavily from her past lead roles in “Hanna” and “Brooklyn” to portray the titular protagonist and does a phenomenal job in bringing “Lady Bird” to life. The way Ronan is able to hold her own in realistically realized arguments with Laurie Metcalfe’s character is impressive; Ronan’s realistic depiction of a teenager lashing out at their mother just makes each curt word the characters exchange come across as impactful. Tracy Letts, playing Lady Bird’s father, is also an utter delight, Letts is adept with handling the characters easygoing and gentle nature while Lucas Hedges is another supporting standout, getting one of the most emotionally impactful scenes of the entire movie. I didn’t even know who this guy was eighteen months ago but he’s managed to reduce me to tears in two different movies over the last eleven months, so, well done Mr. Hedges.
But it’s Laurie Metcalfe who really hits the home run of a performance here. In the role of Marion MacPherson, Metcalfe’s performance is maybe the best thing to come out of the film’s thorough commitment to verisimilitude. I saw so much of my own mother in even just the smallest pieces of body language from Metcalfe while she and Ronan bounce off of one another in such a powerfully realistic way that makes one feel like they’re watching raw documentary footage of a mother/teenage child relationship. Greta Gerwig’s script and Laurie Metcalfe’s performance combine to make a character ripped straight out of reality itself, it’s nothing short of a tremendous feat. Suffice it to say, “Lady Bird” is a phenomenal movie. This is the kind of captivating cinema we don’t get very often, so like chances to appreciate what your parents have done for you, so cherish gems like “Lady Bird” in the rare times that they come along.
Douglas Laman is a film critic, who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends and… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com