A critical darling, writer-director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (2017) is good, but overrated. Curiously, its faults are also overrated, in that many are characteristic of its genre.
The most inarguable criticism comes from Walter Chaw, who writes that Gerwig’s “blocking is stiff and mannered. Her characters move in the wrong direction on screen, so that meaningless little transitional scenes suddenly feel like a horror movie.” This explains my frequent nagging feeling that something was a bit off. That “Gerwig as a director is tentative and self-conscious,” though, should be expected given her chosen genre: the (necessarily allegorical) coming-of-age film.
Richard Brody offers the key to understanding Gerwig’s more stilted directorial choices when he writes that Lady Bird “isn’t a film that is stuck in conventions; it’s one that borrows them, but from within, not quoting them but treating them, too, with a sort of practical respect for a mature art[.]” The film doesn’t treat the conventions of the coming-of-age tale with the irony of, say, The Edge of Seventeen (2016), nor is it shoehorned by them; rather, it’s clear-eyed about them and the reasons they exist. It’s what Roger Ebert means when he describes Crazy Heart (2009) as “like a country-western cliche happening for the first time.”
The core of a coming-of-age film, then, is the protagonist at its center who’s coming of age. Brody says that Saoirse Ronan lacks the “sudden and mercurial energy” of her character as written, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson; on the contrary, it’s the superficially placid surface of her personality that keeps the character unified through all the emotional twists, turns, and about-faces.
To understand her journey, we need to see how she is before and after her growth. That’s a lot of ground to cover over a multifarious range of life experience, so is it any wonder that, as Susan Wloszczyna writes for RogerEbert.com, the film is episodic? Even as good a coming-of-age film as Obvious Child (2014) can’t overcome this limitation. And an action-packed episodic plot precludes the possibility of acting-led scenes and breathing-room editing (edited by Nick Houy) in a ninety-minute package, leading Brody to call the film a series of “pictures of actors acting” directed with “an air of restraint.”
Perhaps the solution is to make a film about only one aspect of coming of age; Call Me by Your Name (2017) limits itself to sexual coming of age, and it works just fine.