Greta Gerwig’s indie directorial debut has just achieved a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes. It’s a film that everyone should see, not least for its poignant portrayal of a complex mother-daughter relationship
In a year of unrelentingly grim world events, we must grab onto bright spots where we can. The engagement of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle: charming! The births of a record number of giant panda babies: wonderful! And the revelation that Lady Bird, the latest film by indie writer-director Greta Gerwig, has just become the best-reviewed film of all time? Well, that might just be my favourite news of the year so far.
Lady Bird’s triumph comes courtesy of movie review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes, where the film currently has a 100% ‘fresh’ rating out of 170 reviews. No other film in history has ever maintained such a unanimously glowing pedigree. The top spot was previously held by 1999’s Toy Story 2, which was certified 100% fresh across 163 reviews. Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 war movie Battleship Potemkin – a film regularly included in ‘best of all time’ lists – has a 100% rating, but only 45 reviews.
In both quality and quantity, then, Gerwig’s film has breezily outstripped almost a century’s worth of competition.
I am delighted, because Lady Bird is a film that everyone – but especially women – should watch, then watch again with their friends, then watch again with their mothers, and then watch again on their own. When I went to see it recently, I left the cinema feeling dazzled, dizzy, drunk on emotions. It’s a film that’s near-impossible to watch without experiencing a yearning sense of recognition, even if your life – like mine – has borne almost no resemblance to that of the titular character.
The basic premise of the movie is this. Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson is a bolshy, bratty, dreamy 17-year-old girl in her final year at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. She has pink hair and lofty dreams of going to an East Coast college, but is – as her careers adviser takes dry pleasure in reminding her – an average student. (In the US, it costs more money to attend university out of your home state, and Lady Bird’s parents are perpetually skint. As a result, she has to secure a scholarship if she wants to flee California.) The year is 2002, going into 2003. The Iraq war hums in the background.
Not much really happens over the course of Lady Bird’s 93-minute running time. There are no dramatic car crashes, no deaths in the family, no truly shocking revelations. Christine joins her school’s theatre group, dips in and out of friendship and romance, and bickers with her mother as she prepares to leave home. That’s it. There are few twists, few turns, few edge-of-your-seat moments.
But it’s this steady quietness that sets Lady Bird apart from other films about female adolescence. For many women, especially those of us who didn’t grow up in big cities, our teenage years weren’t sexy and hedonistic like those portrayed in Spring Breakers. Neither were they hilarious and dramatic like Mean Girls, or glamorously dark like The Virgin Suicides.
Instead, most of us will look back at ourselves aged 13 to 17 and realise that our lives were… well, they were a bit boring. My own teenage years were punctuated here and there by crushes and parties and fall-outs and heartbreaks, but they were mostly spent doing not very much with my mates and arguing with my mum about the state of my bedroom. That’s the vision of teenagerhood portrayed in Lady Bird, and it’s poignantly familiar.
Other elements of the film ring deeply true. Lady Bird’s bond with her loyal best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) is arguably the most joyous relationship in her life, yet it’s not immune to external pressures. The push-pull between good friends and ‘cool’ friends is something many of us will remember from school.
The clothes, too, are pitch-perfect for their 2003 setting – from Lady Bird’s grungy beaded jewellery to the super-wide skate shoes favoured by her first boyfriend. The soundtrack (featuring Alanis Morissette, Justin Timberlake and Dave Matthews Band) is equally spot-on. And the pretension, awkwardness, sweetness and cruelty of the boys in the film made me squirm and laugh and cry. I’d almost forgotten how wonderful, hilarious and crushingly disappointing teenage romance can be.
But the most important and defining aspect of Lady Bird, and the thing that sets it apart from almost all movies about teen girldom that I can think of, is the fact that it places Christine’s relationship with her mother at its heart.
Marion McPherson (played brilliantly by Laurie Metcalf, who deserves all the Best Supporting Actress awards we can throw at her in 2018) is a warm, loving, hardworking mental health nurse who is also thoroughly pissed off at her teenage daughter’s lack of gratitude and respect. Her husband Larry (Tracy Letts) is depressed and jobless but extremely nice, which means that Marion always has to be the ‘bad guy’ when it comes to dealing with their kids.
In other words, she’s a fully-formed, believable 50-something female character, something that’s rarer than unicorns in mainstream cinema.
Lady Bird’s journey from resenting to appreciating Marion is, indisputably, the most important story arc in the entire film (Gerwig initially titled her script Mothers and Daughters). Again, this is something we see often in real life, but almost never in movies: the way the relationship between mothers and daughters can be as complex and character-defining, if not much more so, than any romantic heartbreak.
Importantly, the film doesn’t offer any neat solutions to Marion and Lady Bird’s fraught relationship. They love each other deeply, and they drive each other mad, and that’s just the way it is.
In a recent interview, Gerwig described Lady Bird as “a movie about wanting to leave a place that’s secretly a love letter to the place, and a movie ostensibly about a daughter that’s secretly about the mother”. It’s all that, and much more. You owe it to yourself to see it.
Lady Bird is due to be released in the UK on February 16, 2018.
Images: Rex Features