For a town that prides itself on social awareness and progressive politics, Hollywood recently has struggled to keep up with changing times. First came the 2015 #oscarssowhite campaign spotlighting the perennial lack of Academy Award nominations (and screen time) for people of color. The Academy responded with major changes to its membership and voting policies, but more roles for nonwhite actors and those behind the camera have remained elusive.
Sexual harassment and abuse scandals have rocked Hollywood in 2017, damaging or ending careers for powerful players such as Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey. More important, the scandals blew the lid off Tinseltown's barely hidden old boys' club and its deeply ingrained sexism. Self-deprecating jokes won't be enough to clear the air on this subject at next year's Academy Awards ceremony — we've come too far for that.
Hollywood's current predicament sets an unlikely stage for first-time solo writer-director Greta Gerwig's beautifully realized Lady Bird, a coming-of-age story about a 17-year-old girl struggling to break free of her conservative upbringing in suburban Sacramento, California in 2002. One almost can hear Hollywood's sighs of relief because a woman was greenlighted to make a debut film that will undoubtedly figure prominently in awards season, which begins in a couple of weeks and won't let up until the Oscars ceremony on March 4, 2018.
Any rush by the film industry to take credit for Gerwig's creative success should be tempered by the real lesson of Lady Bird: It's not impossible to make a great movie from the stuff of everyday life. Just about every scene in Gerwig's small, deeply personal film rings true and makes standard-issue coming-of-age stories — as churned out by Hollywood — seem hollow and pandering by comparison.
Best known for comedic performances in films Frances Ha and Mistress America (both of which she co-wrote with her partner, director Noah Baumbach), Gerwig hails from Sacramento but has said that Lady Bird is autobiographical only in broad emotional terms, not specifics.
That emotional truth is central to Gerwig's film and generated by a screenplay capturing the cycles of support and antagonism unique to intense family relationships — especially between mothers and daughters. Teens will surely recognize something of their lives in Lady Bird, but this is a coming-of-age story told with benefit of grown-up experience and perspective, and characters to which viewers of any age can relate.
Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) plays Christine, a senior at a Catholic high school who has adopted the more individualistic name "Lady Bird." She contends with her hypercritical mother (Laura Metcalf) and adores her sweet but severely depressed dad (Tracy Letts). Complicated relationships consume her and feed her dreams of escaping to New York City, though her grades and finances present obstacles.
A self-described theater nerd, Gerwig surrounded herself with Broadway royalty to make Lady Bird. Metcalf won this year's Tony Award for Best Actress (for A Doll's House, Part 2) and inhabits a difficult role in ferocious style. Letts is a similarly accomplished actor and winner of a Pulitzer Prize for his play August: Osage County.
Artists like these add depth to Lady Bird and seem an ideal match for Gerwig's screenplay, which manages to reveal characters instead of explaining them. That is how a filmmaker shows respect for her audience — and thrives in an industry that would just as soon hold her back.