If you love ‘Frances Ha’ then you’ll love ‘Lady Bird’, Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical story of growing up a teenager in Sacramento
Early on in Lady Bird, the solo director-writer debut from Greta Gerwig, the 17-year-old title character, played by Saoirse Ronan, delivers a dramatic statement to her mother and leaps from a moving car. It’s funny, sad and impulsive. Moreover, it establishes the tone of the poignant movie that follows.
First, let’s cut to the chase: if you love Frances Ha, then Lady Bird will be your new favourite film. The coming-of-age comedy, which comes out in the UK in early 2018, concerns a year and a half in the life of Christine, a loquacious teen who insists that everyone should call her Lady Bird. The storyline, per se, consists of a young woman growing up in Sacramento and wondering what the hell she’s gonna do next.
She falls out with her best friend, she loses her virginity, and she discovers a passion for singing in school plays. Like Frances Ha, it’s about accumulating small life moments, and the importance of relationships that aren’t necessarily romantic. To be honest, it could easily be a prequel called Frances Ha: The Early Years.
Though Gerwig isn’t in the film, her presence is felt throughout. Ronan, as Lady Bird, embodies the awkward mannerisms and physicality we’ve come to know from Gerwig. Still, it isn’t an impersonation. Sure, Ronan performs the traditional Gerwig dance moves and rattles through one-liners with ease, but it’s with teenage recklessness and youthful buoyancy. She’ll say “I love you” to a boy she barely knows and “I hate you” to a mother she knows too well. With big gestures just part of her daily routine, she’s Frances Halliday before the self-doubt sinks in.
Lady Bird is, noticeably, set in Sacramento, where Gerwig grew up and eventually left. Intriguingly, Gerwig revealed in 2013 that 30 pages of Frances Ha took place in Sacramento and went unfilmed. “I was really upset about it, but (Noah Baumbach) was right about it,” she said. “It just didn’t fit the story.” She added, “I love big sprawling movies where there are too many characters and people get introduced halfway through… at some point, I’d like to make a movie that indulges all of that.”
“The film explores subjects such as recognising depression in loved ones, coming out to your parents, and the value of telling pro-lifers to fuck off”
In Lady Bird, characters do indeed come and go, including two boyfriends – played by Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges and Call Me By Your Name heartthrob Timothée Chalamet – and a host of bratty classmates at her all-girl Catholic school, but none are more important than her BFF Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and her exhausted parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts). Just as Frances Ha was a romcom about female friendship, Lady Bird is the rare coming-of-ager that isn’t structured around snagging a romantic partner. Gerwig even revealed at New York Film Festival that the working title was Mothers and Daughters, which isn’t exactly what you’d expect from a teen movie.
Yet in 93 succinct minutes, Lady Bird covers a lot. Through Lady Bird and those around her, the film explores subjects such as recognising depression in loved ones, coming out to your parents, and the value of telling pro-lifers to fuck off. The 2002 setting, which doesn’t match up with Gerwig’s biography, was selected for its post-9/11 shadow: “We were starting the invasion into Iraq… and we were ushered into a new age of politics. We knew it was shifting but it was, in a way, invisible.”
In fact, Lady Bird is such a confident, assured debut, it’s hard to believe it’s Gerwig’s first time behind the camera. In a way, it isn’t. She co-directed 2008’s Nights and Weekends (a mumblecore movie conveniently forgotten by anyone who’s seen or worked on it), and she co-wrote Frances Ha and Mistress America. But Lady Bird – lensed by Frances Ha’s cinematographer Sam Levy – is the full Greta Gerwig experience, and captures that early period where every decision and social interaction feels like a life-or-death moment.
The film, too, is hilarious, and I know it’s a crowdpleaser because I saw it at a packed screening, over the weekend, at the London Film Festival’s annual “Surprise Film” event. Afterwards, Ronan and Gerwig came out on stage, to rapturous applause, and summed up why we all fell head over heels for this deceptively simple story. In its specificities, the story becomes universal. “There is no great big drama at the centre of it,” Ronan said. “She just welcomed us into her life for a year and a half.”
“You completely go with her teenage passion. You know the movie that’s playing in her head, but that’s not actually the movie she is in. And for anyone raised on Titanic, you’re fucked forever” – Great Gerwig
“You completely go with her teenage passion,” Gerwig added. “You know the movie that’s playing in her head, but that’s not actually the movie she is in. And for anyone raised on Titanic, you’re fucked forever.” It’s true: Ronan’s character uses “cut to” in casual conversation, and her complaints (“I want to live through something”) are linked with wanting a story to eventually write about. In that sense, Lady Bird is also about how some people are just born to be filmmakers. Just as Frances Halliday found her happy ending as a ballet choreographer, Gerwig is now fulfilling her destiny as one of the best writer-directors working today.