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Review: Lady Bird – “Wholeheartedly honest storytelling”

There are myriads of reasons behind the amount of love Lady Bird has received since its festival premiere in Telluride. A lot of it has to do with the film becoming in some way the flagship of women-led filmmaking this cinematic award season and rightfully so. After all, writer/director Greta Gerwig didn’t wind up earning those coveted Oscar nominations out of a fluke or of some political agenda to meet a diversity quota. She deserved every single one of them – especially the directing nod – simply because she has made one of the best films of the year.

Having a soft spot for coming of age stories and being a long time fan of Miss Gerwig’s work both as an actor and as a screenwriter, there’s no denying I was the ideal target audience for this film. Yet, given my familiarity with the genre, I can guarantee that Lady Bird stands out from the crowd because it is rooted in wholeheartedly honest storytelling and all the talent involved have crafted an emotional journey that rings true from start to finish.

The wonderful Saoirse Ronan stars in the titular role of a rebellious teenager who’s trying to survive senior year of high school in her native Sacramento whilst applying for colleges in New York, hoping to spread her wings and finally leave the dull small-town life for a place brimming with culture and excitement. Average teenage turmoil aside, her fervid desire for change and escape stems from an overly complicated love/hate relationship with her mother, played by brilliant veteran of the small screen Laurie Metcalf of Roseanne fame.

The film opens with the two of them returning home from a trip, as summer ends and the final year of high school begins. The sequence perfectly encapsulates the rollercoaster nature of this mother-daughter dynamic in a few beats as things quickly escalate from getting emotional in unison to an audiobook of “The Grapes Of Wrath” to non-stop bickering over long-term issues that culminate with Lady Bird getting out of the moving car. It’s a perfect trailer moment you can’t help but laugh-out-loud to even if you already know it’s coming.

Everything is about rebellion for our opinionated protagonist who is full of hilarious antics, like the obstinacy to be addressed by her nickname rather than her actual name, even at school. It all comes down to issues of identity that are typical of that age and are addressed in authentic and poignant fashion by the talented filmmaker. Gerwig takes all the tropes of the fish-out-of-water teenager fighting to find her place in the world and makes them all genuinely relatable for the audience instead of relying on easy Hollywood gimmicks.

Despite being inspired by events and people from her life, the film isn’t in any way autobiographical. Yet if you’re familiar with Gerwig’s back catalogue of titles she starred in and co-wrote with director and life-partner Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha and Mistress America above all) you’ll recognise the auteur’s offbeat humour and her earnest approach to writing characters that come across as real people, even when they go over the top for the sake of a good laugh.

That’s the beauty of this equally funny and moving story. From Lady Bird’s family to her best friend and love interests, each character surrounding our lovable protagonist is well rounded and entertaining and we get to see their deeper side along with their light-hearted tones. Gerwig has populated her solo directorial debut (she co-wrote and co-directed 2008’s Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg) with some memorable characters that leave a mark with the viewers rather than making unnecessary noise.

It’s a testament to the filmmaker’s inspired casting choices and nuanced direction but also to the talented bunch of actors who embody her characters so effortlessly that you almost forget you’re watching a film.

Laurie Metcalf is perfection as Lady Bird’s mum and her believable chemistry with Ronan is the core of the film. Tracy Letts in just a few moments of mundane life demonstrates once again why he’s one of Hollywood most underrated actors working today. Rising stars and Oscar nominees Lucas Hedges (Manchester By The Sea) and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) shine as the two polar opposite kinds of boyfriends toying with our inexperienced protagonist’s heart.

And then, of course, there’s Saoirse Ronan, who keeps impressing and rightfully piling up Oscar nominations as if it were the easiest thing in the world, whereas her level of artistry is clearly the sum of innate talent and hard work. She simply owns every scene and carries the film on her shoulders capturing human traits we can all identify with.

The same goes for the brilliant auteur behind this little film that’s bound to make you swoon and reminisce about your own youth. Gerwig’s greatest achievement is how she seamlessly tackles familiar territory in a personal way and yet makes it feel universal. She deserves high praise for perfectly capturing the mood of a pivotal moment like graduating high school and going to college. The film oozes with an authentic feel of nostalgia, poetically summed up by a scene where Lady Bird relishes her first drive around the city she desperately wants to leave behind after earning her driver’s license. Gerwig excels as a storyteller in the small details of the mundane and in the way she steals our hearts during the most emotional moments without shedding an ounce of cheesy and gratuitous sentimentality. We need more honest filmmakers like her.

Lady Bird is out in selected cinemas from February 16th and opens nationwide on February 23rd.

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