Lady Bird

lady-bird-nytGreta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is one of the nine films nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. It doesn’t seem to fit the description — it’s wee, technically modest, undemonstrative to the point of obliqueness — and I don’t know that I’d put money on it myself, but the more time I have away from it, the more warmth I feel for it. It’s cozy; it’s fine. Its brushstrokes are light, and it never overextends — or extends, really. Its energies are almost wholly inward-directed. We ride along with the sorrows and temporary joys of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who insists that everyone call her Lady Bird. Why? The movie doesn’t tell us. Nor does there seem to be a compelling reason to set the story in 2002 and 2003. A lot of Lady Bird — its emotional meanings, specific references — seems locked away from the viewer, known and felt only by Gerwig.

It probably won’t do to speak of male or female styles of movie directing, especially in an art form that has given us Bigelow, Wertmüller, Lexi Alexander. But a movie like, say, Wonder Woman feels different from a male-directed superhero film in a million distinct, at times large and overarching, or sometimes almost imperceptible ways. They are elements that add up and assure you that you are getting a woman’s vision, which is all the more to be valued in an industry where the default — the experience that’s shared on film, and the audience with whom the experience is shared — is (white hetero) male. Lady Bird is unmistakably and unapologetically (white hetero) female. It’s a gentle thing, but far less fragile than it looks; there’s a hidden sadness in it, and strength from the sadness.

Lady Bird is a teenage student at a Sacramento Catholic school. She dabbles in this and that (running for school office, acting in plays), trying to find a self. In that way she’s a bit like Rushmore’s Max Fischer, though she has her own quirks. She’s dying to get out of Sacramento, to go to college in New York. Her mother (Laurie Metcalf), who works double shifts as a nurse to keep the family afloat, wants Lady Bird to be realistic about what school she can get into — and can afford. She has a boyfriend who turns out to be gay, then pairs off with a pompous ass in a band. She ices her best friend for a while in favor of a popular kid, then thinks better of it. Her entire life seems to be a repeating pattern of moving in one direction, backtracking, moving another direction, and so forth. The filmmaking, honoring this, feels diffuse, indecisive.

Actually, it’s right on target, a rare American inner-consciousness portrait that somehow doesn’t feel hermetic. The narrative may not literally reflect Gerwig’s life, but it has her warm and sympathetic touch; her personality can be felt. Lady Bird is far from perfect and often makes bad decisions, but they are her decisions. We never doubt that. In a repressive environment, she does what she can to carve her own space, to meet her own needs (a virgin, she swaps masturbation techniques with her bestie). She isn’t especially looking for a boy until she finds one — in both cases fixating on them while they’re singing (falling in love with their voices, I guess an inverse of The Little Mermaid).

We understand why she feels and acts as she does, and yet our empathy extends to people she has conflict with, such as her mother. Gerwig loves actors and small, telling moments, and actively avoids melodramatic plot turns you might expect. She bears down into mundane scenes and somehow makes them feel fresh by the sensibility that animates them. Gerwig’s obvious fondness for her characters (nobody in the film is all bad — or all good) is contagious. She loves and respects her creations enough not to put them in stupid, well-worn situations; she respects us enough not to foist such tired drama on us. We don’t see so much of that sort of consideration at the movies that we can afford to dismiss it.

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