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‘Lady Bird’ nests in your heart with profound coming-of-age tale

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Preston Barta

Right out of the shell, it’s apparent Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, is special. On the surface it resembles that routine indie coming-of-age movie that sprouts up every year. However, Gerwig (star and co-screenwriter of Mistress America and Frances Ha) gives her film wings by inserting nuggets of wisdom and a wonderful sense of atmosphere in her story.

In Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) portrays a teenage girl named Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. She didn’t obtain this nickname by a family member or a friend. She gave it to herself. That’s just who Lady Bird is. She’s a determined and assertive individual, much like her overworked mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).

Like any good mother, Marion just wants what’s best for her daughter: to go to a good, nearby college and be a responsible, mature young woman. But when your life is as structured as Lady Bird’s is, including her attending a Catholic School in uniform, sometimes you want to fly the coop, dye your hair pink, and eat sacramental bread like it’s a tasty jar of cookies — and that’s exactly what she does.

To further illustrate this film’s singularity, in the opening scene we see Lady Bird listening to a Grapes of Wrath audiobook with her mom as they drive in a car. After the tape concludes and our characters’ eyes are streaming with tears, Lady Bird suggests listening to something else. Her mother, however, says, “Let’s just sit with what we’ve heard” — a nuanced moment that speaks volumes about modern society and how we ingest our entertainment.

We spoke with Gerwig while she stopped in Texas to promote the film at the Austin Film Festival premiere last month, and discussed in length about her reasoning for setting her story in the early 2000s.

“I don’t know how you make a movie about teenagers that live in the present without shooting a bunch of smartphones, and honestly, I’m not interested in those stories,” Gerwig said. “There’s a lot of money being poured into making sure we consume vast amounts of media. I wanted to talk about that, and also have the juxtaposition of listening to a book on tape and that desire to immediately go to the next thing. I think it’s a disease, and instead of saying it’s a disease, we’ve created a world that honors it.”

Services such as Netflix and Hulu already have the next video in the queue before we even have time to hit the pause button. It’s become a common trend now for viewers to finish the next popular series in one sitting, or you’re behind in popular culture.

“When something moves me, I don’t want to move on right away. Whether it’s finishing a novel or a film, we have this insatiable need to keep going. I don’t think it’s something we should keep filling,” Gerwig said.

Lady Bird juggles a lot of different themes and still has room to subtly include profound moments of commentary. To balance all of these acts, it took Gerwig some time to iron out all the kinks in her script and make sure she stayed true to the narrative.

“I don’t do any improvisation with the actors on set. I love for them to play and try things out, but I really stick to the words because I spent so long trying to balance everything and make it true to the characters. I want the characters to talk about things that are important and relevant to their lives.”

Gerwig highlighted this notion by drawing comparison to many movies she has seen, particularly ones that feature major moments in history or global events. Often when movies take this path they have nothing to do with the personal lives of the characters, she said.

Greta Gerwig poses for a portrait in New York to promote her film, "Lady Bird."Scott Gries/Invision/AP
Greta Gerwig poses for a portrait in New York to promote her film, "Lady Bird."
Scott Gries/Invision/AP

“Something I was interested in while creating this story was how everything always happens at once. The truth is America is a big country, so you live through these things in your city or town with your family as you have all these personal things going on. Like you’re going to the prom and we’re invading Iraq,” Gerwig said. “This is all happening together, and they’re both part of your identity.”

It’s evident from top to bottom Gerwig wanted to create a fully formed movie that’s both honest about the human experience and is an entertaining story for us to grow from. Whether she has the attention of teens heading into adulthood or parents letting go of their children, there is something to be learned.

“What the process made me aware of was, as a teenager you’re so sure that life is happening somewhere else, and it’s not happening to you right now and you have to go get it,” Gerwig said. “But once you get to wherever you think is happening, you soon realize, ‘No. Wait. Hold on. It’s been going on all along.'”

Lady Bird opens at the Angelika Film Center in Plano and the Magnolia Theatre in Dallas on Nov. 17.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on FreshFiction.tv. Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

FEATURED IMAGE: Laurie Metcalf, right and Saoirse Ronan play mother and daughter in Lady Bird. Photo courtesy of Merie Wallace/A24.