This year’s Best Picture nomination list is the strongest in years, with all nine films genuine contenders. It’s no coincidence that some of them – The Shape of Water; I, Tonya; Lady Bird – came out months ago in the US, allowing the hype machine to cement them in the minds of the Academy.
Greta Gerwig’s brilliant Lady Bird has been a rightful recipient of that hype; everybody has heard about Saoirse Ronan’s wonderful performance as the eponymous Lady Bird (her quaintly rebellious chosen name), a girl on the cusp of adulthood, trying to break through the invisible film of sadness that clings to her Sacramento suburb.
But foreknowledge does this film a disservice. It’s a quiet, delicate thing, the kind of movie better stumbled upon than pumped up on the steroids of Oscar buzz. It shrinks against this harsh spotlight, furling like a flower in the night.
That’s not to disparage this great piece of filmmaking – Gerwig directs with the candour, sensitivity and knowing humour of someone mining their own experience. Her characters feel real, often crushingly so, their lives hard-lived, their struggles against poverty and their own histories quietly heartbreaking.
Christine – AKA Lady Bird – is smart but not destined for the Ivy League. She hangs out with the geeky kids not because she’s great at maths, but because she’s a bit of a dork, and because she likes them. It’s essentially a super-smart high school drama, with Christine navigating the perilous route between friendship groups and boyfriends. She’s not sure who she is yet, and neither is anyone else; the only thing they all share is crippling insecurity.
The crux of the film is Christine’s relationship with her mother, a stern, judgemental woman who’s clearly been through some stuff, and is now passing her problems down the familial line. Her deep-burn passive aggressive comments provide both the movie’s moments of humour and horror, often at the same time.
“I wish I could live through something,” sighs Christine, declaring that the most interesting thing about 2002, when the film is set, is that it’s a palindrome. It’s a throwaway line, but it captures the great irony of youth, that you’re a passenger in the most exciting years of your life, wishing it were tomorrow.