Uncommonly warm and blessed with a comic voice that feels both fresh and personal, Lady Bird is a terrific solo debut from filmmaker Greta Gerwig, who will no doubt be charming us both in front of and behind the camera for decades to come.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is a 17-year-old living in Sacramento in the year 2002, and she is over it. She can’t even get her own mother to use the new name that she’s picked for herself in favor of boring old “Christine,” and that’s just the tip of the iceberg of her problems with her family, her hometown, and herself. Lady Bird is a coming-of-age story that traces her final year of high school, and while that doesn’t sound like the freshest territory, it’s special because of Gerwig’s voice as a writer and a director, and also because of the exemplary performance by Saoirse Ronan.
Ronan has been giving one strong performance after another since she started working, but the last few years have really seen her come into her own. It’s hard not to see some of Gerwig in the character she’s playing, but that’s inevitable. Gerwig has such a distinct rhythm as a comic performer, and it’s there in her writing as well.
The film that I would compare this to most, in terms of what it tells us about the filmmaker, is Rushmore. Sure, Rushmore is more focused on a visual style than Lady Bird, but both films expertly chart the efforts by their lead characters to navigate the panic of oncoming adulthood without compromising all the weird, difficult things that make them who they are. I’m not sure how much of this is or isn’t autobiographical for Gerwig, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is how in control she is, and how richly detailed her storytelling is. I didn’t go to Catholic school in Sacramento at the turn of the century, but this feels like it gets everything exactly right.
Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (played with warmth and insight by Beanie Feldstein) are pretty far from the bright center of their particular high school universe. Jenna (Odeya Rush) is the popular girl at school, while Lady Bird and Julie just spectate from the sidelines. They envy Jenna her skin, her smile, her popularity, her money. When Lady Bird finds a way to break into that super-cool inner circle, she can’t take Julie with her, and she doesn’t hesitate.
It’s a year of firsts for Lady Bird. She and Julie try out for the school’s fall musical, and they’re both cast in it, which is how Lady Bird meets Danny (Lucas Hedges), her first boyfriend. She also finds herself drawn to the always-reading-and-brooding bad boy Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and she manages to make plenty of disastrous bad choices along the way. What I love about this is the same thing I loved about The Perks Of Being A Wallflower. The film has room for all sorts of ideas, dealing with class and family and how we pass things along to our children, as well as nostalgia and that moment where you start to realize who you actually are, not just who you might be. Ronan does an exceptional job of charting these changes in Lady Bird, and having spoken to her over the years, I am flat out astonished by her American accent. Odeya Rush resists the urge to make Jenna into a cartoon mean girl, and the film is better for it. Meanwhile, Chalamet and Hedges are both terrific, and they play even the most difficult scenes in the film with natural ease.
For me, though, the movie comes down to Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother, Marion. Metcalf has been a working actress for decades now, and she’s always been very good. She and John Goodman were the performers who forced me to take Roseanne seriously, because they’re both so incredibly good that you can’t be phony and survive a scene with them. Marion’s got a tense relationship with her daughter, and there’s very little she can say or do that doesn’t irritate Lady Bird in some way. Her father Larry (Tracy Letts) is a pushover, and Marion feels like she’s been cast as the bad guy in the household. Her relationship with her daughter can be summed up in a moment where the two of them are shopping and Marion, trying once again to explain why she’s so hard on her daughter, says, “I just want you to be the very best version of yourself you can be.”
“What if this is the best version?” Lady Bird asks, and her mother’s non-answer speaks volumes. Metcalf has a handful of career-best scenes in this film, and while Letts has the less demonstrative role, it’s no less important. I like Letts as a writer (Killer Joe and Bug are both terrific), but he really surprised me here. Larry underplays everything, and when one of those punches does land, it’s emotionally crushing.
Jon Brion continues to push himself into totally different places as a composer, and one of his greatest strengths is how he doesn’t really have a signature sound. His score here is fun and poppy and his arrangements are very unusual. It feels like the perfect inner life for Lady Bird, though, and it’s a perfect accompaniment to the rich, emotional photography by Sam Levy. He’s done really good work on films like Wendy and Lucy, and he shot three films that Greta Gerwig starred in. Considering those were Mistress America, While We’re Young and Frances Ha, he’s been there for some of her more defining moments, and he showed up for her here. It’s a beautifully photographed movie, and it feels like you’re wrapped in memory while you watch it. At the end of a film year, I’m not necessarily left with individual movies, but rather with a mosaic of images and scenes that jump out at me, and there are so many tiny moments here that will be part of that — Julie and Lady Bird hiding out in the sacristy eating unconsecrated wafers and gossiping about boys; a walk of shame that is anything but; her first meal inside the Dream House.
This is a gorgeous movie made by a gorgeous spirit. There is such love for people and place, and as I think about it, I am struck by something Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) says when she tells Lady Bird that she can feel her love for Sacramento in the way she writes about it. “I don’t know about love,” Lady Bird says. “I just pay attention.”
“Isn’t that the same thing?” Greta Gerwig pays attention to the people she writes about, and that’s reason enough for us to do the same.
Running time: 93 minutes
Drew McWeeny | Chief Film Critic