A protagonist lives on the wrong side of tracks. Sound familiar?
You might be inclined to run from the impending cliché train. Not so fast.
In Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” the tracks serve as a geographical boundary between class. On one side, live the struggling middle class, on the other, the beau monde of Sacramento.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by Saoirse Ronan, lives on the wrong side, of course. Living with her parents, brother and his girlfriend, she is cognizant of her class status. Lady Bird attends a rigorous Catholic school, which her parents can barely afford. Her father, played by Tracy Letts, is laid off from his job. Such moments of awareness abound. One telling moment occurs in a store when Lady Bird and her mother Marion admire a fancy dress. In the next scene, the mother is sewing a precise replica of the dress.
Of course, any good protagonist has desires. And Lady Bird’s desires are abundantly clear: Escape. Lady Bird is obsessed by escape, to the point of applying to colleges back East. To Lady Bird, the East is a bulwark of everything artistic.
“I want to go somewhere where culture is,” Lady Bird proclaims, not a little pompously.
Escape also manifests itself in Lady Bird ingratiating herself with wealthier crowds. Her own best friend Jules is left behind in the weary world of the 99 percenters. At one point, Lady Bird even claims that a classmate’s sprawling home is her own.
In Gerwig’s film, characters long for personal agency. When Lady Bird attends a wealthy friend’s Thanksgiving dinner, her mother Marion is both angered by and envious of her daughter’s opportunity. Lady Bird’s laid-off, aging father yearns for relevance in a changing world.
While the movie nicely addresses themes of class, there are a number of questions unresolved, namely the mother-daughter tensions. This is a shame, because there is much potential here. Laurie Metcalf, in particular, brings a great deal of manic energy to the role of Marion McPherson. Mother and daughter bicker over every conceivable subject, namely classes, personal habits and collegiate choices.
“You do not think of anyone but yourself,” Marion proclaims.
There is more than an ounce of truth here. But we need to understand the mother better as well. Marion McPherson does not feel like a three-dimensional character. There are clear hints of complexity and a more tender side, but they are not fully pursued. At one point, we learn that Marion’s own background was rife with abuse, but we also need to understand Marion’s own desires. Knowing these desires would have given Marion’s actions more weight emotionally.
In terms of desires, I also wanted a better sense of Lady Bird’s concrete desires back East. It was not clear how Lady Bird saw her life beyond the prism of escape. How might the arts have offered that escape? Why was she drawn to the arts?
Should you see this movie? I recommend this strongly, flaws notwithstanding. It is especially attractive if issues of class are of interest.
“It is nice to make things neat and clean,” Marion says, wishfully. But that lack of cleanness is precisely what imbues the movie with promise. Gerwig has all the makings of a masterpiece on her hands. If only she had gone deeper into the emotional wellsprings.
Directed by: Greta Gerwig
Release date: Nov 3, nationally. Nov 22 at the Lyric Cinema. Nov 24 at Cinemark Fort Collins 16.
Running time: 93 minutes
Playing at: Lyric Cinema, Cinemark Fort Collins 16
Fun fact: In an interview, director Greta Gerwig said she would have liked the film to be close-ups of Saoirse Ronan’s face because of her beauty.
Collegian reporter Mir-Yashar Seyedbagheri can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @dudesosad.