4.5 out of 5 stars.
“Lady Bird” opens with a close-up of a mother and daughter sharing a bed in a hotel room, sleeping, facing toward each other but not touching. It’s a shot that effectively establishes the connection this pair has that forms the foundation of writer and director Greta Gerwig’s stunning and honest directorial debut.
Set in Sacramento, California in 2002, the film follows Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a senior at a Catholic high school. Christine rebels against almost everything and everyone, even giving herself her own nickname—Lady Bird—and insisting that everyone call her that. She says she hates California and wants to go to college on the East Coast, something her mother insists their struggling family can’t afford, and saying that Lady Bird likely won’t be able to get into any of those school anyway. She fights with her family for even the most pettiest of reasons. Her older brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) has graduated college but can’t find a job better than bagging groceries at the local supermarket along with his girlfriend, Shelly (Marielle Scott), who has recently moved in with the family. She gets along the best with her calm and kind father, Larry (Tracy Letts), who doesn’t let the rest of the family see his depression and his struggle to hang on to his job in the changing post-9/11 economy.
But Lady Bird has a turbulent relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). They both have such strong personalities that, despite the underlying love they have for each other, they are constantly at odds. The second scene of the movie, after the aforementioned shot of the two sleeping in bed, depicts Marion and Lady Bird riding in the car on the way home from a college visit. They both get teary-eyed at the end of listening to an audiobook tape of The Grapes of Wrath. Less than a minute later, they are screaming at each other. The film is filled with moments like this between mother and daughter—moments where they get along, following by moments where they can’t stand each other,
“Lady Bird” traces its protagonist’s journey throughout her senior year of high school, and she goes through a few distinct stages. The first half of the school year, she gets involved in a theater group (which Gerwig depicts as high school theater at its awkward best) with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and falls for the equally nice and awkward Danny (Lucas Hedges). Lady Bird has always dreamed of living a life more on par with some of her classmates, who drive expensive cars and live in big houses; Danny’s grandmother lives in Lady Bird’s dream house, as it turns out. The second half of the school year, Lady Bird becomes even more rebellious—harmless pranks and conversations turn mean, and she ditches Julie to befriend Jenna (Odeya Rush), one of the rich popular girls. She also gets involved with a boy, Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), a loner who reads history books, plays in a band, and waxes on about how he is trying not to participate in the economy and survive only through bartering. The final act forces Lady Bird to mature as the conflict with her mom and her desire to go to school out of state comes to a head.
The wonderful thing about this coming-of-age story is that Lady Bird’s growth occurs organically, without ever feeling contrived. Gerwig writes with a voice that understands what it’s like to be a teenage girl, and all the uncertainties and selfishness and humiliating experiences that go along with that. Her screenplay is witty and downright hilarious, churning out an endless stream of quotable bits of dialogue for a good chunk of the film. The tone becomes a bit uneven toward the end of the film, as the rather light content of the first half of the film turns serious, with fewer funny bits in between, and there are issues that Gerwig seems to want to touch on, but doesn’t have time to explore, like depression and mental health. But the story does strike a moving chord in all the right moments, and the film ends with a feeling not like everything is resolved, but with the feeling that Lady Bird and everyone else is going to be okay.
Gerwig also proves herself to be a more than capable director in her first solo outing. In fact, it’s rare to come across such a spectacular directorial debut as this one. Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, and has said that this film is semi-autobiographical; her affection for her hometown comes across in the way she shoots it, finding beautiful in everyday moments.
Ronan delivers yet another Oscar-worthy performance as the titular character, balancing the angst with the anger in a way that make Lady Bird likeable despite her misbehavior and frequently unfair attitude toward her mother. She never fails to bring an authenticity to her roles, whether she’s playing a timid young woman like in “Brooklyn” or an outspoken rebel like “Lady Bird.” Metcalf is equally wonderful and heart-breaking as Lady Bird’s strong mother, whose realism is often at odds with the rest of the family she is the sole provider for. The rest of the supporting cast holds their own in a cast filled with big talents, including Hedges, Feldstein, Rush, as well as Stephen McKinley Henderson, who plays Father Leviatch, the Catholic school’s drama teacher.
“Lady Bird” is a delight from start to finish, but it’s more than one of the best movies of the year. In an industry crying out for more women to take larger roles behind the camera, Gerwig, already an accomplished actress on the indie film scene, makes her mark as a talented writer and director. In an industry that needs more authentic portrayals of women on screen, “Lady Bird” is a delightful and insightful exploration of two complex female characters.
Runtime: 94 minutes. Rated R.