Is ‘Lady Bird’ Overrated?

A fine coming-of-age film, yes, but surely oversold by critics.

By - Jan 16th, 2018 01:45 pm
Saoirse Ronan (left) being directed by Greta Gerwig on the set of 'Lady Bird.'

Saoirse Ronan (left) being directed by
Greta Gerwig on the set of ‘Lady Bird.’

Truly enjoyed and recommend Lady Bird as an insightful addition to the youth quest genre — a teenage girl growing up in 21st century America buffeted by the currents of romance, politics, religion and class standing.

But may I couch my praise in caution involving director Greta Gerwig? She has clearly mastered the no-nonsense, follow-the-walking-body jump-cut style of the camera, the use of quiet supportive music by Jon Brion, and has produced a perceptive screenplay of adolescent sensitivity. It’s full of the kind of snappy but disjointed dialog that could stem from an intelligent teen girl who feels isolated and confused.

Aside from a fresh take on the universality of dilemmas about sex and impermanence – as films like The Graduate before her that spoke to the confusions of the 1960s — she has struck a chord in the social times this film arrives in.

A majority of the impact comes from the fine actors digging into the script under the writer’s guidance. Saoirse Ronan, who had already won acclaim for portraying the young Irish maid in Brooklyn, is captivating as the self-proclaimed Lady Bird, blindly fighting with an overly controlling mother and toying with her hormones and social-climbing issues at a Catholic high school. Ronan is a great screen-acting mixture of ugly duckling and momentary swan without which the part wouldn’t fly. Her sharp tongue gets her in the sort of trouble and mischief that audiences cheer.

Ronan is blessed particularly in a supporting cast including Tracy Letts as her always cheerful, doting but financially inept father. His income struggles weigh heavily in the family largely through the mother portrayed spot-on with tight lip and welling eyes by Laurie Metcalf, who can’t keep from criticizing Lady Bird when she also loves her – a situation many mothers will identify with. It is in some of their exchanges that the screen play is both particularly good and particularly manipulating.

The film also involves character insights that are convincingly executed when you watch them but seem a bit too stagey in contemplation. There are moments when the high school life and messages seem not much different than the “Dead Poets Society” 29 years ago in its view of what kind of people are attracted to drama and writing.

Even as I encourage audiences to cherish Lady Bird for its insights and heart-tugs, I am a bit put off by all the hailing of Gerwig as one of the “freshest female voices of her generation” and a brilliant – as opposed to definitely watchable – entry into the directorial ranks.

First, at age 34 she has already been a decade’s presence as actress and co-writer, providing pinpoint cameos in films like 20th Century Women and Jackie and less impressive leading roles in films like Maggie’s Plan where her need for a coordinated ensemble is more evident – and that Lady Bird assuredly has, which seems a sign of real growth.

Her arrival comes at the height of feminine awareness when many of both sexes are distressed by the lack of female voices in movies and in essential roles in society. So the emergence of Gerwig and Lady Bird is also perfectly timed to our cultural interests.

This film, and some of her past writings, are also drawn from her life and family in Sacramento, tapping the feelings many share in adolescence. Let’s not put her on a pedestal until she widens her character canvas – and just enjoy the one she has given us.

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You’ll find his blog here and here.

7 thoughts on “Movies: Is ‘Lady Bird’ Overrated?”

  1. PMD says:

    This is a terrible review. Half of it isn’t even analysis of the film in question. The writer suggests that it’s being praised not because it’s good (and the writer is in a tiny minority when it comes to the quality of Lady Bird) but because it was released at a fortuitous time. And that is some petty, ridiculous nitpicking about how Gerwig is being hailed as a fresh voice. Maybe the old male critic should have just admitted he can’t relate to anything on screen. That would have been more honest. This is embarrassingly bad writing.

  2. Virginia says:

    I’ve been impressed with Greta Gerwig’s acting, writing and co-directing for years. Her presence and voice was ALWAYS distinct.

    Then Lady Bird blew me away.

    I’ve seen plenty of oversold films but never felt that about this one. Actually, just seeing the trailer, not reading reviews, is what drew me in. And, of course, all of Gerwig’s previous work.

  3. Bill Sweeney says:

    My wife and I (60’s generation=came of age in the 1960s and now chronologically in our 60’s) saw the movie along with our 2 children and daughter-in-law (late 20’s, early 30’s). My wife and I really liked the movie while the younger generation were less impressed. I really liked the acting which was excellent. The dynamics between the daughter and her parents was well done. Nevertheless, I too thought the movie was overrated. It was a good movie, not a great movie, certainly not as earthshaking as the reviews made it out to be. It is worth seeing, but I would not necessarily watch it again.

    A great movie is anything by Asghar Farhadi, and a movie worth watching over and over again is his film, A Separation.

  4. Terry says:

    I haven’t seen the film yet, too busy watching Korean westerns after Nordic skiing all day, but I do like the song Lady Bird by Nancy Sinatra and Lee Hazelwood.

  5. Bob says:

    This is a wonderful movie! Is it made more wonderful by way of the dearth of real competition, possibly. I too have liked Gerwig as an actress in some films and come away empty on other occasions. But to bring that into the review here is a little unfair. Let’s judge this on the writing, the direction and the great job that Ronan and the other members of the cast did.

  6. Josef Loeb says:

    An ok movie. Nothing more, nothing less. Thus, highly overrated in its oddly reception. After spending a decade working in the Independent American film circuit, Greta Gerwig learned the craft. And didn’t add a single drop of inspiration or originality to it. This movie could have been directed by any of the Independent film directors she has worked with. She chewed on that meal, and regurgitated it back, saliva-free, no ingredient added. This way, the result is enjoyable, but ultimately bland. Miles away from the relentless visceral energy of a Christopher Nolan in Dunkirk (or in any of his films), or the sensitive imagination of a Guillermo Del Toro, or the dry but always refreshing originality of a Paul Thomas Anderson, just to mention three among many with far superior movies released in 2017.

  7. Jason says:

    It wasn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Most of the characters (especially Lady Bird herself) are completely unlikable from start to finish. I’ll grant that it was well-acted, but the “story” is so dull and directionless that when the credits started to roll, I was caught completely off guard because I was still waiting to find out which event or character I was supposed to care about before the film reached its climax (which I had apparently missed). It’s basically a dramatized documentary of an uninteresting teenager’s uneventful life. I guess a lot of people love it because they could really identify with the characters; that would normally be a big accomplishment for a movie, but in Lady Bird’s case, it’s just because nothing noteworthy ever happens to anyone.

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