One of the sweetest and funniest scenes in Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird lasts 47 seconds, and has six cuts between four camera set-ups. The first shot in the sequence is a close-up of a plastic tub of communion wafers, sitting on the floor of what looks to be a Sacramento Catholic high school’s sacristy.
Next we see a medium-wide shot of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) lying on their backs with their feet up on closet doors, while a priest’s vestment hangs on a rack in the foreground.
Next, in the sequence’s longest sustained shot (about 30 seconds), Christine and Julie are shown from above, upside-down, wafers between their heads.
There follows a quick cut to a disapproving fellow classmate, Darlene (Kathryn Newton), shot from a lower angle to represent the girls’ perspective from the floor.
And then three of the previously seen shots repeat in rapid succession: feet on the closet, Darlene from below, and the overhead.
The scene’s construction and pacing are pivotal to delivering its jokes. It’s obvious (and amusing) right away what Christine and Julie are doing. They’re eating communion wafers as a snack while goofing off and gabbing during some unstructured stretch of their school day. It does take a few seconds, though, to figure out what they’re talking about. They’re comparing the different ways they use rushing water in the bathtub and shower to bring themselves to orgasm. This charming, intimate frankness—emphasized by the unusual overhead angle, and by how much longer that shot is held in the sequence—is so absorbing that it’s all the funnier when Darlene suddenly walks in to complain that the girls shouldn’t be eating the wafers, which they shrug off by saying, “They’re not consecrated.”
That line provides the perfect button to the scene, which then ends with Darlene storming out and the friends giggling. These 47 seconds have nothing to do with the movie’s plot, but everything to do with what Lady Bird’s about: the daily life and reckless leisure of a well-meaning, but not always all that self-aware, white middle-class teenage girl in Sacramento in the early 2000s. Like a lot of the seemingly throwaway moments in Lady Bird, this scene is more essential—and craftier—than it initially appears.
Lady Bird became a surprise 2017 awards contender after a rapturous reception on the fall festival circuit, followed by a phenomenally successful limited release. Yet even some of the movie’s fans have insisted that it’s primarily a triumph of writing and performance, not any kind of notable cinematic achievement. Lady Bird just doesn’t look like the kind of film that people think of when they think “Best Director” or “Best Cinematography” or “Best Editing.”
But those 47 seconds illustrate how Lady Bird’s technical qualities aren’t just merely functional, and are indeed more thought-through than the typical coming-of-age American indie dramedy.
Lady Bird covers roughly a year in the life of the title character, in 93 minutes. Even taking into account brief, brisk vignettes like the wafer-eating scene, none of that screen time is wasted. Gerwig squeezes in two romantic relationships for Christine, plus ongoing minor and major melodramas involving her heroine’s college applications, her courting of the popular crowd (at Julie’s expense), her middling academic performance, her unemployed dad’s job search, and her ongoing arguments with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) about all of the above. In between, she fleshes out the context of this story with impressions of both life in Sacramento in general and life in the early ’00s in particular.
How does she get all that in? Shot selection and editing. She has cinematographer Sam Levy picking up bright, clean, colorful images of Sacramento, from the hangout spots to the nicer neighborhoods to the local landmarks. And then editor Nick Houy cuts everything to the quick. The wafer sequence isn’t the only one in the movie that lasts under a minute. Frequently Lady Bird starts as deep into a scene as it can without completely confusing the audience, and then it rushes back out as soon as it gets to the point—usually exiting on a witty line or a telling reaction shot.
It’s hard to say how much of this is directly attributable to Houy, whose most prominent previous credits as a lead editor include two very different cable TV dramas, Billions and The Night Of. Meanwhile, as a screenwriter, Gerwig’s best-known pre-Lady Bird movie is Frances Ha, which she co-wrote with director Noah Baumbach, and which is similarly ruthless about getting into and out of scenes with minimal fuss and maximum thrift—as though the filmmakers were attempting a daring daylight robbery.
But whether she’s working closely with her editors or she’s leaving them little choice in how to cut her films because of how lean her scripts and footage are, this kind of short, snappy, collage-like approach to storytelling has become Gerwig’s “style”—which undercuts the argument that there’s nothing distinctive about the way her movies look and feel.
Lady Bird’s methods are far removed both from the “mumblecore” scene where Gerwig started, and from the prevailing trends in mainstream movie comedy, both of which have tended over the past decade to favor improvisation, carved into a rough shape in the editing room. Lady Bird, by contrast, frames the bracing naturalness of its performances within lines that have clearly been written. And as noted, a lot of its editing has apparently been done on the page.
The ultimate effect of intentionality is that every choice Gerwig and Houy make has more meaning. This isn’t a Judd Apatow-esque “we let the actors riff then string the best takes into an ungainly 132-minute behemoth” situation. Given how tightly Lady Bird is paced, it matters when, say, the film spends one of its 93 minutes showing Marion McPherson giving a present to a coworker who just had a baby. This is a moment Christine never sees, but we do; and for the attentive viewer it alters a lot of the context for Marion’s incessant and sometimes vicious criticism of her daughter. We see she’s actually a warm and generous person, who just lets Christine’s self-absorption and sloppiness get under her skin.
More often than not, the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences distributes its editing nominations between a few of prestige dramas nominated for Best Picture and a few action/adventure films that aren’t. Last year Hacksaw Ridge beat out Arrival, Hell Or High Water, La La Land, and Moonlight. The winners over the previous five years have been Mad Max: Fury Road, Whiplash, Gravity, Argo, and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. During that stretch, the only nominees that could be classified as “comedies” have been The Grand Budapest Hotel, American Hustle, and The Descendants, each of which also has some other element—be it fantastical whimsy, criminal intrigue, or adult drama—that muddies their genre.
One could argue that Lady Bird isn’t strictly a comedy either, given how often Gerwig plays up the tension (and the eventual tear-jerking resolution) in her mother-daughter relationship. Still, for the most part the reason the movie’s already become so beloved is that it’s very, very funny. It’s the zippy pacing that allows Gerwig to pack in so many laugh-lines. Great comedy is arguably as dependent on smart editing as any high-octane blockbuster.
Consider one of the most memorable cuts in Lady Bird: when Christine barges into the men’s bathroom and sees her boyfriend kissing a male classmate, and then she and Julie sit in a car crying along to Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me.” The sequence is preceded by another key non-Christine moment (again, very purposefully included), showing Julie plopped down against the wall after having just had her own heart broken by a math teacher she secretly has a crush on, while the priest who directed the school musical sits next to her, depressed.
What follows is a barrage of two- to three-second shots of the musical’s cast getting rowdy at a local diner, and then a rare handheld shot following Christine and Julie from the long line in the ladies’ room to their unfortunate discovery next door. The restless motion and bonhomie of the preceding 30 seconds gives way to a static overhead shot of the girls in shock, for 20 whole seconds.
Here again, an entire story-point—encompassing cringe comedy, genuine heartbreak, an awareness of other people that the heroine lacks, and a loving depiction of a time and place—is introduced and dispatched in under a minute. Choose the right shots, and that’s all it takes.