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Bob Hoose

Movie Review

Her name is Christine McPherson. But please, call her “Lady Bird.” And, yes, that’s her given name. It’s given to her, by her.

Lady Bird lives in Sacramento, the Midwest of the West Coast. She’s an average-looking girl with scraggly pinkish hair. She attends Immaculate Heart, a Catholic school. And, quite frankly, she’s waiting on pins and needles to finally find herself in a life that’s worth living. Hopefully, that life will take place in someplace with culture, like New York. Or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire—you know, where writers live in the woods.

The problem is, she still has one more year of high school left before her class of 2003 graduates. Well, there are also the problems of having just average grades and no money. So Yale is out. But there are plenty of other possibilities, right? She just has to find them. I mean, hey, since last year’s 9/11 attack, there are bound to be some prestigious schools that have openings—what with the ongoing threat of terrorism and all.

In any case, Lady Bird’s biggest problem isn’t really grades or money or any of that other stuff, anyway. It’s her mom. Yep, forget everything else: her mom’s constant harping and passive-aggressive nitpicking is about to drive her up a tree. It got so bad last week that she literally jumped right out of the family car… while it was moving. A broken arm was a small price to pay for a few minutes of peace.

Now, pink arm cast and all, she just has to work out the details of the rest of this, her last year at Immaculate Heart.

Boys, grades, sex, college apps, prom. She’ll make it all work. You’ll see.

Positive Elements

“I just want you to be the best version of yourself that you can be,” Lady Bird’s mom tells her, trying to explain her myriad motherly nudges and nags. “What if this is the best version?” the teen wonders in reply. And that question, it turns out, is a central part of what this film wants its viewers to ask, too. What is our best self? What are our best qualities? What makes us who we are?

In response, we see Lady Bird grapple with romantic love and discover how a teen’s first whiffs of that ethereal substance can often be disappointing. But she also discovers that her family’s love, as well as the foundation of faith they’ve raised her with, can provide a lasting and stable foundation to build a life upon.

The strength of lasting friendship is also very important in Lady Bird. Throughout the stresses and strains of high school and social cliques, she and her best friend, Julie, maintain their deep affection and loyalty toward each other.

And for all their clashing, Lady Bird and her mom are ultimately shown to be very much alike. We watch them both reach out to gently comfort wounded people, sometimes including each other.

Spiritual Elements

Even though Lady Bird is rebelling to some extent against the constraints of family and school, her Catholic school teachers, priests and nuns are never painted negatively. They’re all shown to be good people who want to help students in spite of their own personal flaws.

This film paints a picture of life in a Catholic school through a montage of activities and communal prayers. At a school dance, a nun calls for a six inch space between dancers for “the Holy Spirit.” Lady Bird and Julie tape a “Just Married to Jesus” sign on the back of a nun’s car. Later, the nun laughs over the joke, but she suggests that in truth she has been married, in a way, to Jesus for 40 years. Elsewhere, Lady Bird and Julie eat a bunch of communion wafers as a snack.

While drinking heavily, Lady Bird asks a guy if he believes in God. He replies that he thinks the whole subject is ridiculous. Lady Bird gets falling-over drunk and has to be dropped off by fellow partiers at a hospital to recover. Upon dragging herself out of the hospital she discovers that it’s Sunday morning and walks down the street to attend Sunday Mass—subsequently weeping at the cleansing power of the service.

Sexual Content

We see Lady Bird kissing a couple of guys as she starts experimenting with the physical side of her attractions. She tells one love interest that he can touch her breasts, but he declines “out of respect.” Later, though, she catches him making out in a bathroom stall with another guy.

A different love interest, however, takes her up on her offer. We see them making out and fondling one another quite passionately. Later, in bed, they have a brief sexual interaction that we watch to completion. (She wears a bra and bed linens, while he’s bare chested). After the fact, though, Lady Bird laments that her first sexual experience wasn’t more special. To which, the guy asks, “Why? You’re going to have so much unspecial sex in your life.”

Another scene visually alludes to someone masturbating (though without showing it explicitly). Lady Bird and her friend Julie have multiple conversations about various sexual experiences. Lady Bird is horrified to find out that the guy she has sex with has had six partners previously. Before she loses her virginity to him, Lady Bird crudely asks a question about a particular position.

Another friend of Lady Bird’s wears formfitting tops and short skirts and talks openly about her sexual experiences. We see her in a skimpy bikini as well. A woman in a theater audience wears a very low-cut blouse.

On the home front, Lady Bird’s brother, Miguel, and Miguel’s girlfriend, Shelly, are unmarried but living together in the family home. Shelly expresses how much she appreciates being welcomed into the McPherson’s home after her parents kicked her out over the “premarital sex thing.” After turning 18, Lady Bird buys a Playgirl and the camera glimpses some full-frontal male nudes in the magazine.

Violent Content

Lady Bird throws herself out of a moving car. We watch from inside the vehicle but don’t see her hit the ground.

Crude or Profane Language

About 15 f-words and five s-words are joined by several uses each of “a–” and “h—.” Jesus’ and God’s names are misused about half a dozen times total (with God’s name being combined once with “d–n”). A handful of crude references to male and female genitalia are spit out, including two uses of the c-word.

Drug and Alcohol Content

Lady Bird and a small group of friends smoke marijuana and get stoned. Shelly smokes clove cigarettes, and Lady Bird picks up the habit after trying one. When she turns 18, Lady Bird goes out and buys a pack of tobacco cigarettes. One of her boyfriends smokes regularly.

Lady Bird gets very drunk, to the point of vomiting and falling over. Teens and twentysomethings drink beer and booze at a different parties. A student talks about a bunch of “Irish girls” going out and getting “sloshed.” Someone reports that one of the school’s priests took his vows after seeing his son die from a drug overdose. Lady Bird’s mom says that her mother was “an abusive alcoholic.” Lady Bird’s dad begins taking prescription antidepressants after losing his job.

Other Negative Elements

Lady Bird cheats on a test, steals a teacher’s grade book and lies to better her grade point average. Republicans are repeatedly referred to as generally eye-roll-worthy individuals. During a student seminar about the child-killing horrors of abortion, a disgruntled Lady Bird yells at the speaker, saying, “If your mother had had the abortion, we wouldn’t have to sit through this seminar.”

Conclusion

“She’s warm, but she’s also kind of scary,” a former boyfriend named Danny says when describing Lady Bird’s mom.
“You can’t be scary and warm!” Lady Bird retorts, slightly exasperated with the idea. How can anyone be made up of those diametrically opposed qualities? How can you possibly be both?

Of course, those kinds of contradictions happen all the time in life. And the teen protagonist here is no less a dichotomy herself. One second she’s glaring at her mother with hate-filled eyes, then rejoicing lovingly with her the next. Their perfectly pitched, passive-aggressive mother/daughter dynamic—showcasing the delightful abilities of actresses Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf—play out like a percussive modern dance worthy in many ways of a standing ovation for its tender realism.

That’s a huge part of Greta Gerwig’s witty and disarming directorial debut here. This coming-of-age film drills down into the intimate micro-contradictions of life even as it explodes onscren with many visually problematic ones.

Moviegoers will witness a young girl exploring sex, drugs, heavy drinking and even a bit of graphic nudity. But they’ll sense her inner innocence, nonetheless. They’ll be beaten by the film’s bombardment of f-bombs and profanities, while also being tearfully moved by strong messages praising the cleansing power of faith and the aching beauty of imperfect familial love.

Lady Bird is its own version of scary and warm. It’s both. It’s composed of two diametrically opposed qualities that both leave a mark.

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Bob Hoose

After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.