Lady Bird is the thoroughly enchanting solo directorial debut for Greta Gerwig, who is perhaps best known at the moment for her multiple collaborations with indie auteur Noah Baumbach. Having previously starred in the Baumbach-directed Frances Ha and Mistress America (both of which she also co-scripted), as well as the filmmaker’s dramedy Greenberg, Gerwig stepped behind the camera for Lady Bird in order to call the shots herself, drawing from her original script. A semi-autobiographical dramedy inspired by Gerwig’s adolescence, Lady Bird firmly establishes its creator as a storyteller with a unique voice and identity all her own. Lady Bird makes for a delightful coming of age comedy/drama, fueled by Gerwig’s inspired direction and Saoirse Ronan’s charming performance.
The year is 2002 and Christine McPherson (Ronan) – who prefers to go by “Lady Bird” – is a teenager entering her senior year in (Catholic) high school, with big dreams of moving away from her hometown of Sacramento in order to attend an artsy East Coast college, preferably one in New York. Christine is matched in her expressive nature, strong opinions, and headstrong attitude by only her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse who would much prefer that her daughter attend college somewhere closer to home (and cheaper). The volatile dynamic between the two of them is only exacerbated when Christine’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) loses his job, forcing the McPhersons to tighten their belts even further.
Christine thus takes it upon herself to try and realize her dreams of a college experience far from home on her own, all while going through the various ups and downs of life as a high schooler. Among other things, Christine finds herself becoming sexually active for the first time, weathering both the highs and lows in her relationship with her BFF Julie Steffans (Beanie Feldstein), taking steps to impress the wealthier students at her school, and making a valiant effort to maintain the peace with her mother. Gradually, Christine begins to realize that it might just be all of these things together (the good and the bad alike) that truly make her “Lady Bird”.
In its own way, Lady Bird in the cinematic equivalent of a great photo album – a snapshot that conjures up strong memories and feelings from the past, even as it recounts life-changing events and memorable experiences in the blink of an eye. Taking place over the course of a year, Lady Bird (and, in turn, Gerwig’s script) aptly captures the turbulence of adolescence with wit, heart, and the wisdom afforded by the passing of time. Gerwig’s film also brings to mind something like Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, in the way that it authentically encapsulates what life was like growing up during the ’00s through its attention to small details and what, in the moment, seem like the banalities of everyday life. Lady Bird is far more succinct in its approach than Linklater’s dramatic epic (which is nearly twice as long as Gerwig’s film), focusing on brief moments and small interactions between characters that manage to say a whole lot and pack an emotional punch, using but a few words and with limited screen time. Like the best page-turning novels, Lady Bird is a thematically and emotionally satisfying narrative that flies by, yet leaves you wanting more.
Credit goes to both Gerwig and editor Nick Houy (The Night Of) for ensuring that Lady Bird never drags, nor wastes a moment of its runtime. The film’s editing creates some nice juxtapositions between the similar day to day experiences in Christine’s life (meeting with teachers, walking down the street), as well as those that further emphasize the important connection between “Lady Bird” and her mother. Gerwig also has a strong eye for visual comedy and for capturing the distinct flavor of the film’s Californian neighborhoods and scenery, with the aid of the memorylike cinematography by Sam Levy (her collaborator on Frances Ha and Mistress America). While Gerwig’s visual sensibilities have no doubt been influenced by her previous collaborations with filmmakers like Baumbach, Lady Bird never comes off as derivative and has a look and feel that is all its own.
As indicated earlier, Lady Bird is, at its core, as much a mother/daughter story as it is a coming of age tale, and the performances from Ronan and Metcalf are in no small part also responsible for the film’s success. As she has done with very different roles in the past, Ronan vanishes into the part of the tempestuous Christine, making the character all the more honest a representation of an actual teenager for it. Ronan’s wonderful performance here is matched by that of Metcalf, who is equally moving and shrewdly funny in her own turn. The dynamic between the onscreen mother and daughter duo is all the more believable because of the small touches that Ronan and Metcalf apply, from their body language around one another to the way they can undercut each other, then have a sincere bonding moment without skipping a beat. Suffice it to say, both are deserving of the awards buzz that they are getting.
Equally enchanting in her supporting role here is Feldstein as the brainy and bubbly Julie, lending all the more authenticity to the character’s friendship with Christine in the film. The larger Lady Bird ensemble is great in their own right, starting with Letts in his turn as Christine’s easygoing but quietly troubled father Larry. Also great here are Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) as Danny and Kyle – two very different boys that Christine falls for over the course of her senior year in high school – as is Jordan Rodrigues (The Fosters) as Christine’s adopted brother, Miguel. Meanwhile, on the adult side of things, character actors Stephen McKinley Henderson (Fences) and Lois Smith (The Nice Guys) manage to be both funny and moving in their brief appearances as two of Christine’s teachers here, in the forms of Father Leviatch and Sister Sarah Joan, respectively.
In the end, Gerwig very much sticks the landing with her solo directorial debut on Lady Bird and delivers a thoroughly enjoyable coming of age story that is both funny and wistful in equal measure. Driven by great writing, direction, and performances all around (among other elements, like the lively and touching score from Jon Brion), Lady Bird makes for a terrific addition to its genre – one that goes even further in breaking the mold than The Edge of Seventeen, last year’s own acclaimed look back at adolescence through the eyes of a teenage girl. As a surefire player in the awards season to come, Lady Bird is one that cinephiles will want to check out in theaters, as will anyone else who is either a fan of Gerwig’s previous work and/or interested in finding out what all the fuss is about.
Lady Bird is now playing in U.S. theaters nationwide. It is 93 minutes long and is Rated R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying.
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