“Gerwig brings everyone down to their base components: fragility, strength, and the overarching sense that we are all just figuring ourselves out.”
Title: Lady Bird (2017)
Director: Greta Gerwig 👩🇺🇸
Writer: Greta Gerwig 👩🇺🇸
Reviewed by Li 👩🏻🇺🇸
I always knew Lady Bird was going to resonate for me. Like the titular heroine, played by Irish ingenue Saoirse Ronan, I left the Sacramento area on the cusp of adulthood during the mid-aughts. For those familiar with the area, this film will certainly deliver that extra zing to your nerve endings with its arid, baked-in atmosphere, but you don’t have to come from Sacramento—“the Midwest of California”, as Lady Bird so aptly puts it—to understand her desperate, ragged search for something more than where she came from.
As any review will tell you, this is a coming of age story that Greta Gerwig, in her directorial debut, infuses with beauty and unexpected humor. Built on a foundation of incredible acting and a palpable affection that stuffs this film fit-to-bursting at its delicate, paper seams, I’m tempted to give this category a full score. However, its familiar high school events do feel a bit hamster wheel in moments—particularly, the friendship arc with best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) who Lady Bird ditches in favor of the popular crowd, only to come back later realizing her folly. We’ve seen this before, right? Yes, we have. But never like this, and never with these talents. Between leading ladies Ronan and Laura Metcalf as her stubborn mother, the combination of cast and writing makes for magic.
Does it pass the Bechdel Test? YES
This film champions women, displaying the full range of complicated emotions, untold strengths, and everyday triumphs that are often afforded only men in feature films. The primary thrust of Lady Bird follows a mother-daughter relationship so meaningfully tendered, it could only have come from a place of truth.
Women make up much of the support cast too, in characters such as Lady Bird’s best friend, sister figure, guidance counselors, and classmates. Men are equally prevalent and complex, shown with just as much vulnerability beneath their leather jackets and cigarettes in hand. In short, both genders display a wide breadth of personalities, ethnicities, body shapes, and income levels without ever relying on exterior attributes to portray their interior worlds.
Lady Bird is a film that could have easily slipped into an ultra-white veneer. Sacramento is a mid-sized city with a population of less than half a million residents, and it anchors an agricultural region that features endless crops and a history largely marked by the 1840s Gold Rush, recalling images of grizzled (white) miners. Luckily, Gerwig recognizes her hometown for what it really is—a multicultural city where people of color made up the majority of the population in 2000.
The film deftly handles race by treating it as a non-event. The core unit, the McPhersons, consists of a mother, a father, the daughter Lady Bird, the son Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), and Miguel’s girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) who has essentially been adopted into the family. Rodrigues is Malaysian Australian, so Miguel is visibly not a biological son. But the script never discusses his entry into the family and simply takes it as a fact of life. This adds to the intimacy of Lady Bird, a story that belongs not to the audience but to the McPhersons who never feel the obligation to filmsplain their Asian son’s existence to us.
Both Miguel and Shelly—who appears mixed-race—have significant roles. Miguel is the cool, hardware-studded older brother who easily skips the model minority stereotype despite having gone to UC Berkeley. Shelly looks equally edgy with facial piercings and heavy makeup, but displays a soft side in a touching scene with Lady Bird. Meanwhile, smaller decisions such casting the high school heartthrob with Costa Rican actor Daniel Zovatto, or including black teachers and counselors at the Catholic school, all go a long way in leaving a potential sense of “whiteness” in the dustbin.
By the numbers, however, this remains a largely white cast, with 12 of the top 16 roles on IMDB going to this demographic. If this were proportionate to the city’s demographics, only 6 of those 16 characters would have been white.
Bonus for LGBTQ: +0.50
Lady Bird covers a lot of ground, carrying a surprisingly large cast for such an indie film. One of these plots includes the coming out of a significant character, and his storyline is so warmly depicted and deeply rendered that he could command a movie by his own right.
Bonus for Body Image: +0.25
Julie, Lady Bird’s best friend, is played by Beanie Feldstein who happens to be the younger sister of actor Jonah Hill. She says on finding the role, “When I read, ‘sweet, chubby, theater girl,’ I was like, ‘That’s me!’”
While this character isn’t entirely stereotype-free, as Julie is a bit insecure, consistently talks about her weight, and is often shown snacking, her role is just as complex as the rest of the characters in this film and her friendship with Lady Bird is deeply explored with significant screen time, making her overall inclusion a welcome one.
Mediaversity Grade: A+ 5.00/5
A stunning debut with so much love for such flawed characters, Lady Bird does not stop to divide humans by such shallow boundaries as ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. Gerwig brings everyone down to their base components: fragility, strength, and the overarching sense that we are all just figuring ourselves out, hurting others and bringing joy in equal parts of this giant, human experiment called life.