In Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, coming-of-age comedy Lady Bird tells the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (the most talented Saoirse Ronan), a senior in a Catholic high school. Christine was close to finishing her studies in Sacramento, and she could not wait to get out of her hometown, to “where the cultures are.” She uses this argument with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) but realizes her dream would only burden her family financially further. In the last months of her high school life, Christine rediscovered the meaning of friendship, familial and romantic love.
As a Taiwanese, I felt the high school was an unending stream of tough exams and assignments stacked high. Fourteen relentless hours of school and cram school per day left very little time for everything else in life. The new darling Lady Bird, a high school coming-of-age movie was described in many raving praises as a very specific film yet felt deeply personal to everyone. How well would such a movie work on a person that had a significantly different experience from American high schools?
There have been numerous high school coming-of-age films well before Lady Bird, and they were mostly about the same events in teenage lives. For example, 2016’s critically acclaimed genre-sister The Edge of Seventeen also featured a headstrong protagonist and had young love, fights with friends and family, breakups, reconciling with friends and family. Lady Bird did not stray far from the high school formula; it had pretty much all of that except a bully-nemesis.
Christine’s biggest rival was Christine herself.
But what made Lady Bird special was its quirky comedic charm and flowing structure. In the movie, Christine’s main quest of starting a new life in a metropolis took the backseat most of the time. Lady Bird spent a good portion of its runtime letting characters play off each other, allowing them to breathe and build. Watching Lady Bird gave me the sensation of flipping through pages of a photo book, and the film flowed through time as collages of memories filled the gaps. The result was a movie that felt organic, naturally grown, rather than made. Such quality is rare.
The laidback slice of life approach to the story gave the film a personal, and specific touch. Lady Bird’s method of gaining relatability points was also its biggest weakness. There are scenes that were redundant to character building, and largely inconsequential to the advancement of the main story: Christine trying cannabis with her friends, lying about her grades, buying porn magazine on her 18th birthday, etc. How much Lady Bird struck true with its pinpoint attacks on the heart vary from one person to the other, and as a person who didn’t attend an American high school, they really took me out of the experience. These moments started to feel like a mechanical activity for “This happened to me”, and “I did this too.” By contrast, The Edge of Seventeen made itself relatable by doing a powerful impression of teenage emotional immaturity. While most audiences probably had not gone on a bender of hormone-induced rebellion like The Edge of Seventeen’s protagonist did, the reasoning behind her every rash decision was understandable, and the film’s message more universal.
The strongest part of Lady Bird was undoubtedly the performances. The actors carried and lifted the film; from the titular role to side characters with only minutes of screentime, every one of them was fun to watch. But sometimes the narrative struggled to keep pace with the performances, with the characters feeling more lively than the story they inhabited. It’s also a shame the poignant lessons were heavy-handedly given by several characters when I believe the cast could sell me on anything. Though Lady Bird does not exactly have many new things to say compared to its predecessors, it managed to stand out enough with its organic vibe that permeated every scene.