I read recently that of the few movies in the history of the Rotten Tomatoes movie review aggregator site that have ever had 100% positive and 0% negative reviews, the one that had the most total reviews was Lady Bird. That is, if you figure all the movies with a score of 100% are tied for first, and then you break the tie by looking at how many reviews they received (so, a movie with 75 positive reviews out of 75 total reviews would rank ahead of a movie with 40 positive reviews out of 40 total reviews, which would rank ahead of a movie with 18 positive reviews out of 18 total reviews, etc., and all of them would rank ahead of a movie with 95 positive reviews out of 96 total reviews), then by that measure Lady Bird would be the greatest movie of all time.
Predictably that’s already changed, as with more reviews coming in all the time Lady Bird has already dropped to just below 100%. But still, even to be the sort of greatest movie of all time temporarily is pretty impressive.
Well, I’ve seen it now, and just to jump ahead to my overall assessment of the film: Lady Bird is not the greatest movie of all time.
It’s decent, but it certainly didn’t blow me away.
The title character of Lady Bird is teenager Christine (“Lady Bird” being a nickname she gave herself at some point prior to the opening of the movie). She attends a Catholic high school in Sacramento, where she is a senior. It’s a highly regarded, academically strong school, the student body is socioeconomically diverse, and plenty of the students, including Lady Bird herself, are not Catholic.
Ranked in order from who gets the most screen time to who gets the least, the members of Lady Bird’s family are her mother (Jackie from Roseanne), her father, an adopted Latino older brother, and the wife or girlfriend of the brother, whom the family apparently took in at some point.
Her mother is a psychiatric nurse who works full time or more, her father has just lost his job in some sort of tech field, and her brother I believe has just finished college and is entering the work force, also seeking some kind of tech work.
It’s a middle class family, but as the gap between rich and poor grows dangerously larger in this country and the middle class shrinks, this family is among the many who are dropping rather than the few who are hitting it big and moving on up like the Jeffersons. Especially with the father having lost his job, they’re very much on the edge, with the mother especially experiencing anxiety about that (though it is also mentioned at one point that the father struggles with depression). There are conflicts and stresses at the school based at least in part on class distinctions, and Lady Bird is one of those on the wrong side of these distinctions.
Lady Bird is not an intense story about unusual people or extreme circumstances. This is no Manchester by the Sea. This isn’t a tale about a remarkably heroic, tragic, lucky, insane, saintly, criminal, or anything else extreme high school kid or family. It’s a solid, reasonably well done, reasonably interesting, mostly realistic study of roughly a year in the life of a teenager dealing with not uncommon types and quantities of drama, pain, and joy in her relationships with her parents, sibling, teachers, and peers, with dating and the first tentative steps into sex, and with looking ahead to her post-high school life.
Like I say, I liked the movie more than not, but I didn’t experience it as anything great. I suppose I’d rank it somewhere around the middle of the hundreds of movies I’ve written about. Really, though, given the fact that I only see movies I expect to like, that doesn’t mean it’s mediocre but that it’s quite good. Ranked relative to all movies instead of just the ones I’ve seen, I’m sure it would be way above the middle, at least for someone with my tastes.
But anyway, let me pick out a few specifics that I happened to note.
Lady Bird is a sympathetic character, but she manifests as much of a tendency to fuck up, to behave immaturely, and to treat people who deserve better inconsiderately as the typical person her age. Truth be told, she’s probably a little more flawed than average for her age. I still rooted for her, but she has plenty of growing up to do. (Toward the end you can see her already doing some of that growing, so the film leaves one with reasons for optimism on that score.)
Mostly the story feels real, and mostly it’s a drama, with maybe a chuckle here and there that arises naturally from the material. That is, in the way life itself has its share of laughs without having to be artificially transformed into a comedy. The one exception, though, and to me it really stood out, in a bad way, is when the school has to get a last second replacement to run the drama club, and the only person available is the football coach. The scene is played strictly as farce, as the stereotypically oafish coach proceeds to “diagram” the play (note the ambiguity of that term) on a chalk board and then to get all fired up as he lays out for them how these actors are going to advance from here, and these actors are going to attack here, etc. I could sort of excuse it if it were funny—it would still be out of place, but at least it would have something going for it—but it’s not. It’s ridiculous and falls completely flat. What an odd choice to go for a laugh there, and to utterly fail.
A modest criticism of the movie is that perhaps it tries to cover too much. It raises plenty of issues, but explores few if any of them as thoroughly as they deserve. It feels more like it’s checking boxes. There’s the subplot about being shitty toward a friend when you see an opportunity to social climb, about the closeted gay guy, about age making one potentially occupationally obsolete, and several others, but all too many of these issues are rushed through because there’s so much more to get to. One of the strongest scenes of the movie is when the gay guy breaks down contemplating the ramifications of what he is and how people will respond when they find out, but then that’s left behind as merely one of many things Lady Bird lives through that year.
I mean, maybe that’s OK. Maybe it’s better to give you a taste of these things rather than leave them out entirely (or explore them more fully in a four hour movie), but to me it just felt at times like there are things in the movie that are promising ideas with half-assed execution.
One of the things I liked about the film is that there were multiple positive role models, multiple adults who seemed to genuinely like the kids they interacted with, and who seemed admirably able to put up with their bullshit and instead to take the long view that there’s something good and precious in young people even when it’s hidden by the inevitable errors and stupidities that plague people who aren’t fully developed yet and who are just bumbling along trying to grow up, as was true of all of us (and to some extent remains so, no matter how old we are).
The mom is a mixed figure in that regard, but I want to talk about her at more length separately. The dad seems like a good, gentle, loving person. I definitely liked the old nun with the twinkle in her eye, who watches over all these folks who surely have no clue that someone like her could understand them and empathize with them the way she does. The old gentleman running the drama club (this is before the coach has to take over for him) is a delight. The younger, hip math teacher seems pretty cool. There are plenty of adults in this movie who on balance likely do more good than harm in their influence on kids, which I would not say is true of the general population.
If there is a central issue of the film, beyond just the broad, general one of Lady Bird coming of age over the course of a year, I suppose it would be the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother. I found that intelligently handled and thought-provoking.
When it comes to child raising, there can be a tension between being a child’s friend and exercising authority over the child, with almost everyone agreeing that the latter is more important even when it means sacrificing the former.
I routinely see parents and other caregivers constantly finding fault with their child, correcting their child, seeking to forcibly shape it this way rather than that way, all with kind of a grim attitude that even if the child, or they themselves, don’t like it now, it’s better for the child in the long run and hence the responsible thing to do.
I find that attitude toward children quite sad. My maverick position is that even if there are times when you need to assert your authority in some sense as the adult, having this controlling, hectoring, authoritarian style as your default approach is horribly unhealthy. It’s stifling to the child, and it’s damaging to your relationship with the child.
Lady Bird’s mother is very much that kind of parent, the conventionally responsible parent who willingly takes on the role of the “bad guy” as a necessary evil.
Not all the time. There are scenes where she and Lady Bird share experiences and connect more as friends. But it’s as if on each such occasion the mother then remembers that she’s not supposed to be Lady Bird’s friend, that she’s her mother, and then she goes back into that artificially cold and judgmental role.
In one painful scene, a distraught Lady Bird responds to her mother’s constant correcting of her by pleadingly asking her if she even likes her. The mother doesn’t give a direct answer to the question, eventually fending it off with a defensive “I just want you to be the best you that you can be,” the implication evidently being something like, “I’m in ‘mother’ mode now, where ‘liking’ doesn’t enter into it.” Lady Bird appropriately responds, “What if this is the best me I can be?” craving the kind of unconditional love and acceptance that is incompatible with that “I have to change you for your own good” style of child raising.
I mentioned in my discussion of The Florida Project that of all the criticisms you can make of the main character’s parenting (and there are plenty), I was moved by how beautiful was the obvious delight she took in her child. That’s missing in Lady Bird’s mother’s parenting, but seemingly more because the mother has willed its absence out of a conviction that it would be inappropriate than because she doesn’t potentially feel that way about her daughter.
Again, my view is very much in the minority, and I suspect the adult Lady Bird will end up persuaded that her mother was only harsh with her because she needed to be, and will be grateful that she parented that way. Then when she has kids herself she’ll go on to parent similarly. I just see that as more of a vicious cycle than a virtuous cycle.
I respect that Lady Bird’s mother is doing her best relative to her beliefs and values concerning proper parenting. But I have different beliefs and values.
There are many worthwhile aspects of Lady Bird, but what I have found myself reflecting on by far the most since seeing the film are these issues of child raising.