One of the oldest story-telling genres is that of a character coming of age. Within these stories, a young person goes through an event or series of events that result in significant change within that person. The coming of age film can be comedic, it can be serious, and it can even be horrific. While it most often revolves around younger characters, it can involve and adult moving on to a new stage of their lives. A coming of age story can even be incomplete where a character fails to complete their metamorphosis into adulthood. And whether or not the catalyst for the change is a singular moment, or a series of events, the end result is always that a character will have moved onto a different stage of their lives as a result.
Our latest opportunity to travel alongside a young person on their journey into adulthood comes from Lady Bird. Within it, we follow the titular character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a high schooler in Sacramento, California as she makes her transition to college. Along the way she butts heads with her mother, gets into conflicts with the administration of her Catholic High School, starts making new “friends” with people that are nothing like her, and in general make a bunch of mistakes that all young people make. From this perspective, the film is nothing special; it has all of the usual elements that make up a coming of age film that takes place in a setting such as Sacramento.
What separates Lady Bird from most other coming of age films is how incredibly natural and authentic every character, every dialogue exchange and every step of the film feels. Every single character in the film feels incredibly well realized and fleshed out, and there is not a single one that comes across as phony or as a character that could only exist within some fictitious film-world. Lady Bird feels so real, and so genuine that it is not only one of the better coming of age films of this century, but also the No. 1 contender for the best film of the year.
There is not a single weak character in the entire film. Even characters that are only on the screen for a few minutes each have distinct personalities and parts to play within the film. There are a few characters whose only purpose within the film is to be played for laughs, but even they feel like real people at the hands of writer and director, Greta Gerwig. Being the titular character, it is only natural that Lady Bird is going to be a character with good depth, and the performance by Saoirse Ronan is exceptional, yet also not the best in the film. That honor goes to Laurie Metcalf, who played her mother Marion McPherson, in one of the most compelling performances of the year.
Both Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf put on incredible performances which will no doubt draw extensive attention come award season.
Unfortunately, no film is perfect, and Lady Bird does have one blemish that prevents it from reaching truly rarified air. Every coming of age story needs a moment of epiphany where the events that have taken place within the film culminate for the character to complete their transition into the next phase of their lives. While this epiphany can come about via the cumulative effect of a series of events or moments, there still needs to be one moment that is more substantial than the rest. It is this aspect of the film where Lady Bird falls a bit short.
The culmination of events that led to Lady Bird’s epiphany were never quite compelling enough. Nothing ever felt so substantial that it was an obvious push for Lady Bird out of adolescence. This may be a consequence of how real the film feels. While every adult in the world has had their own coming of age story, most of them are rather dull when stacked up next to the ones we are exposed to in film, television or literature. There is always a need for a bit of embellishment and hyperbole within the fictitious story we are engaged with in order to make it more compelling. Because Lady Bird is really without moments that feel as though they could only exist in a fictional setting, there is no strong catalyst for her change; it just kind of happens. And even when it does happen, it is not fully realized and it comes across as a little tepid.
Though it does have a weakness that slightly reduces the final impact of the film, Lady Bird is still the most well executed and enjoyable 94 minutes I have spent in a theater this year. There truly is never a dull moment in this film, and it does a sublime job of balancing more lighthearted and comedic moments with other moments that are more tense or dramatic. While it is not as obvious as other films that are filled with more spectacle, Lady Bird is quite possibly the most well executed film of the year, and as a result, it is one of the highest quality film experiences available this year.