Reeling it in: ‘Lady Bird’ funny, poignant, sweet

This image released by A24 Films shows director Greta Gerwig, right, and Saoirse Ronan on the set of “Lady Bird.” (Merie Wallace/A24 via AP)

“Lady Bird”

 

A24

1 hour, 34 minutes

Like most high school teachers, I have a healthy amount of skepticism when I watch movies based around teenagers and their formative years. The parties are always bigger, the mean girls always meaner, and the teachers always dumber than in real life. Or, possibly I’m just naïve.

Either way, I rarely believe what I see when I watch a high school movie. Usually I prefer a stylized version, like “Heathers,” or “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” movies that let us know immediately that we are not supposed to be in reality. Then you’ve got the John Hughes series of films — “The Breakfast Club” or “Pretty In Pink,” movies that pretend to portray reality, but with everything turned up a few notches. These movies culminated in what I consider the quintessential high school movie, “Say Anything.” Not only is it peak John Cusack, but it’s also the best corollary to the movie I just watched, Oscar nominee and critical darling, “Lady Bird.”

Saoirse Ronan is Lady Bird McPherson. Early in the film we hear an exchange between our heroine and one of her teachers.

“’Lady Bird.’ Is that your given name?”

“Yes.”

“Why is ‘Christine’ crossed out on this roll sheet?”

“Well, it’s my given name in that I gave it to myself.”

She’s that kind of kid. Lady Bird is a senior at a Catholic school in Sacramento, California circa 2002. Chafing at the strictures of the faith, her small town, and her family’s limited financial situation, Lady Bird is eager to be done with her childhood and to fly free. Her relationship with her mother, which forms the core of the film, is rocky at best and her grades don’t reflect her ambition. Lady Bird is stuck, and she’ll do anything to break out. She is self-destructive and seems buried under the weight of her family’s issues.

But how much of this is due to the extraordinary nature of Lady Bird, and how much of it is simply real life? Maybe the greatest lesson any 17-year-old can learn is that the world doesn’t revolve around them.

I really enjoyed this film. “Lady Bird” is funny, poignant, and sweet. It was nominated for five Academy Awards, though it didn’t actually win any of the categories it was up for. Of those, I’d say the best fit would be a Directing award. First-timer Greta Gerwig manages this semi-autobiographical story masterfully. The film is smaller and more intimate than what typically wins Best Picture, but for the type of movie it is, the story construction and narrative progression is tight.

As well, the acting is beautiful. Laurie Metcalf, as Lady Bird’s mother, was nominated, and she’s great. Her performance is one of those that really show what an actress can do. In a lesser movie, she would be the villain, but she manages to make the audience feel that she is both difficult and demanding, but possibly the most loving character in the film.

Ronan, who first caught our eye with “Atonement,” “The Lovely Bones,” and “Hanna,” has been acting pretty steadily since she was 9. She’s always been an effective performer, but here she really embodies her role and lays it all out there, warts and all. She is the heart and soul of this film and her nomination for Best Actress was more than deserved.

Beyond the acting and directing, “Lady Bird” is a great example of well-constructed relationships. Yes, the interplay between Ronan and Metcalf is great, but that’s not to diminish the various other relationships Lady Bird has throughout the film. From frequently disastrous encounters with the opposite sex, to a contentious family life, Lady Bird moves like a tornado through the lives of the people around her.

The best relationship in the film, however, is the one between Lady Bird and her best friend, Julie, played beautifully by Beanie Feldstein (that sounds made-up). This friendship feels authentic and deep, and the affection as genuine as the inevitable hurt. I could watch these two cavort though a series of movies

In the spectrum of High School Movies, “Lady Bird” falls squarely into the John Hughes genre. A little more stylized, perhaps, and with a definite indie vibe, this is a movie that may not depict strict reality, but probably gets to a more honest truth of Gerwig’s experience getting through her last year of school.

Grade: A

“Lady Bird” is rated R for language and sexual situations.

Chris Jenness is an art teacher, freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.