The opening of a film is perhaps the most important, which is something Ladybird gets entirely right. It’s Sacramento 2002, and we’re introduced to a dispute in a car between a young woman and her mother. The former is the quirky Christine ‘Ladybird’ Mcpheron (Saoirse Ronan) and the latter her diligent mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and this opening scene gives us a shrewd insight into how their relationship will play out over the subsequent 94 minutes. ‘Ladybird’ is a pseudonym given to her by well, herself, presenting Christine with a sense of identity to stand out, distinguishing herself from her middle-class education and family life.
It’s no surprise that Christine wants to move to the East Coast for college, driven by an artistic endeavour to find herself culturally. The film, however, is a love-letter to ‘The Midwest of California’ Sacramento, with semi-autobiographical commentary on writer/director Greta Gerwig’s own adolescence, in a personal script that is vibrant with excellent dialogue and convincing conversations. Ronan is essentially channelling Gerwig herself, who truly understands Ladybird and the world that surrounds her, presenting a beautiful film that the director clearly shares a connection with.
In the shadows of Silicon Valley, the pre-digital epoch is one that is desperately waiting for something to happen, but the way it plays out feels extraordinary in a reflection of today’s digital era. A time when only those wealthy enough can afford to go mobile, Ladybird, in her typically challenging self, feels as though she’s on “the wrong side of the tracks”. Ladybird’s family are an idiosyncratic bunch who are conscious of their cash, with the father (a heartwarming Tracy Letts) soon losing his job. The film’s commentary on the state of the American economy before the financial crisis is subtle yet honest, much like most of what makes it a triumph.
Ladybird feels different to many coming of age dramas in that it’s much more focused on the smaller, more personal moments rather than anything overly ‘seminal’. The film is indeed interested in relationships, but at the centre of this is the imbalance between Ladybird’s insistence to leave Sacramento, and her mothers struggle to keep her close to home. In the spaces of this, the film finds humour in many of the connections that form here. The two young lovers in Ladybird’s life, the first being Irish-Catholic Danny (Lucas Hedges) and then the charming, but moderately clichéd Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) both shine in excellent supporting roles.
Although we’ve seen many others akin to Christine on the periphery of adulthood, we’ve not seen such an honest reflection upon them in a long time. We’ve witnessed many characters undergo adolescent change, fall in love, have sex, and follow a similar cyclical pattern of coming of age cinema, but only Richard Linklater’s Boyhood stands out as a film that breathes as much fresh air into the American youth indie. Shot digitally by cinematographer Sam Levy, the film crafts an inventive use of colour grading to give the film an elusive feel of nostalgic memory.
Where Ladybird might feel somewhat lacking in narrative drama, it makes up in spades in its character development. Gerwig’s presence in the film – utterly ubiquitous, is left to dwell behind the camera, as Ronan takes centre stage. Ladybird is full of confidence, determination, and a rash sense of impulsiveness that every 17-year-old has felt at some stage, but Ronan’s performance is strong enough to hold up with the sensational Laurie Metcalf. With her punk-pink hair and acne hit exterior, Ladybird is a teenager who seems contemptuous to conform, yet somewhat eager to hang out with the cool kids. The flaws she encompasses are dialectical to how the relationship with her mother unfolds, but Gerwig’s screenplay is textured enough to resonate an emotional catharsis in the film’s final third.
Capturing a sense of authenticity in a time and place rarely explored, the writer/director’s roots are firmly cemented here, but Ladybird gives her a voice that will certainly elevate her to the forefront of contemporary independent cinema. It’s a small film with tremendous heart and soul, one that connects on various levels. If I hadn’t already been caught up in a sense of great expectation for Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird, I’d have been completely swept away by it.