Frances McDormand’s angry, grieving mother in McDonagh’s darkly comic, hard-hitting melodrama (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) was such a tour-de-force of a performance that I was sure she would walk away with most of the awards this year. But then I got around watching director Greta Gerwig’s solo-debut Lady Bird and I wasn’t so sure anymore.
The brilliant Saoirse Ronan plays the titular role in the superlative film ‘Lady Bird’. Though her parents call her Christine, Lady Bird is the name “given to me, by me” as she explains to a high-school teacher. Yes, she’s coming-of-age and facing an identity crisis – a genre of movies found a dime a dozen in Hollywood. But, seldom has a more personal look at the adolescent years of an American girl been taken before.
The opening scene of the film is a microcosm of what’s to unfold in the rest of the film. It has Christine and her mother Marion (Laurie McPherson) returning home in their vehicle from a senior year road trip – an American convention in which the various prospective college campuses are given a visit. We realise the time period must be the early 2000s here as they are shown listening to an audio recording of Grapes of Wrath on a set of cassettes while riding across the highways. The mother-daughter pair shed a tear together as they finish listening to the audio recording. But that’s just about the only thing that the two agree on. Christine makes clear her ambitions to go to colleges on the East Coast ‘where the culture is’ abandoning her staid Sacramento neighbourhood. But her stubborn mom is hell bent on sending her to a cheaper college closer home. The scene humorously culminates with Lady Bird jumping out of the car with her mother shrieking in horror. It’s a great example of efficiently introducing its main characters, their motives, the setting as well as the mood of the film.
The turbulent mother-daughter relationship ends up being the highlight of the film. The two strong-headed women are always bickering with each other, but no sides are chosen. The nuanced screenplay is massively successful in portraying the complex parent-child relationship with naturalism and tenderness.
And in no small measure the credit goes to the fantastic chemistry between the two actors. Saoirse Ronan nails the titular role and precisely portrays the conflicting emotions that her adolescent character goes through in her senior year at high school. The copiously talented young actress makes us laugh and cry with equal ease. The veteran actress McDormand’s role in ‘Three Billboards..’ was one of a kind and had a lot more scope to ‘perform’ and she performed and how. But there’s little novelty in a small town, middle-class, white, adolescent American girl in the senior year of her school. It is to Ronan’s credit that she makes us care so deeply for Lady Bird and with her the film as a whole. Laurie Metcalf is also pitch perfect as the hard-to-please mother who has become rather cold and humourless under the stress of carrying the financial burden of the house with her husband getting laid off. The dialogue is so lifelike that you feel like you are eavesdropping on a real mother-daughter argument.
Greta Gerwig, who has gone solo as a director for the first time, draws you into the world of her film and you just flow along with the narrative without even getting bothered by all the clichéd scenarios of a typical teenage drama as they are infused with charming freshness. It probably takes a female director to draw up the world of an adolescent girl with such empathy.