Witty, wise, and wonderfully grounded, Lady Bird is a funny, realistic coming-of-age tale that sidesteps cliché in favour of presenting two complex, sympathetic female characters at odds and yet somehow wishing that they could come to understand the other. It’s a pithy, well-sculpted comedy-drama of affectionate precision that embraces adolescence’s messy realities, by a star and filmmaker that are simultaneously young and excellent far beyond their years.
In 2002, Christine McPherson is a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento called Sacred Heart. She has an up-and-down journey with her best friend, Julie and a strained relationship with her parents (as her father aptly characterizes Christine and her mother, “you both have such strong personalities”). She dabbles in romantic entanglements with multiple suitors. She tries out for the school play, in which she clarifies that Lady Bird is her given name because “it’s given to me by me”. And we observe her as she shoplifts, makes mistakes, attends parties, besmirches religious relics, and tries to become “the very best version of” herself.
Though somewhat predictable for the directorial debut of someone as notable as wunderkind Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird boasts a murderer’s row of independent talent: special shout-outs to Lucas Hedges (who originally starred in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom and gave his breakout performance in last year’s Sundance sensation Manchester by the Sea and landed an Oscar nomination for it) as the sensitive, musical Danny and Timothée Chalamet (who gave his breakout performance in this year’s Sundance sensation Call Me by Your Name and will land an Oscar nomination for it) as “bad boy” anarchist Kyle – deliverer of the glorious retort “You’re gonna have so much unspecial sex in your life”.
And as much as Tracy Letts (The Big Short, Christine, The Lovers) has some great moments, and Lois Smith – here as the sharp-tongued, prudence-doling Sister Sarah Joan – successfully makes a case for being one of the essential supporting actresses of the year between this and Marjorie Prime, Lady’s Bird’s prime acting showcases are focused on the two women whose tête-à-têtes drive and dominate the dramatic proceedings.
As the title character, Saoirse Ronan gives an indelible, irascibly charming performance. Although she’s inevitably chasing everyone from Molly Ringwald in John Hughes classics and Carey Mulligan’s Jenny in An Education to Emma Stone’s Olive in Easy A and Hailee Steinfeld’s Nadine in The Edge of Seventeen, Ronan gives incredible depth, breadth, and nuance to the teen archetype that we’ve seen dozens of times before. Ronan has shown uncommon grace and ability before – she was nominated for an Oscar at 13 for her exceptional work in Atonement, and added another nomination for 2015’s Brooklyn (though I preferred her as Agatha in The Grand Budapest Hotel) – but she outdoes herself here: it’s likely her most impressive work, and Oscar-worthy once again.
Yet remarkably, even Ronan is not the one who is most memorable. She is outshone, if ever so slightly, by the eternally underrated Laurie Metcalf, who is absolutely compelling and almost stampedes into the frontrunner position for Best Supporting Actress. Metcalf’s Marion is clever and brutally honest and “so infuriating” (in Lady Bird’s own words), so equally consumed by love for and frustration towards her daughter that we can see it pulling her apart. The resulting strands, the strands that make it onto the screen, feel utterly true, and the showdowns between Lady Bird and her mother are both familiar and illuminating, similar to the clashes between Evan Rachel Wood’s Tracy and Holly Hunter in Thirteen. We’ve seen these arguments before, but never quite like this.
The puppetmaster behind every scene is Gerwig, who makes her solo directorial and screenwriting debut with Lady Bird. While she’s never been in the chair, Gerwig’s cinematic contributions have become pervasive in recent years: since 2013, she’s starred in Mia Hansen-Løve’s Eden, Rebecca Miller’s Maggie’s Plan, Todd Solondz’s Wiener-Dog, Pablo Larraín’s Jackie and Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women and co-written and starred in Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (which shares the most DNA with Lady Bird) and Mistress America, all the while getting Lady Bird off the ground. In other words, she’s been busy building a résumé of experience that would provide invaluable guidance to a first-time director.
Gerwig also chose a selective roster of technicians that bring complementary sensibilities: while editor Nick Houy is a relative newcomer, he cut his teeth on The Night Of. Gerwig has previously worked with cinematographer Sam Levy (Wendy and Lucy) on her two Baumbach films. And composer Jon Brion entered the industry via partnerships with Paul Thomas Anderson (Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love) and Charlie Kaufman (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Synecdoche, New York). Houy and Levy, in particular, have a feather-light touch that’s perfectly in tune with Gerwig’s approach to the story. If I don’t love it like I love Frances Ha, maybe it’s only because the latter is shot in black-and-white?
In the end, then, Lady Bird, the film, is very much like Lady Bird, the woman: recognizable, credible, universal and yet entirely one-of-a-kind. While not ambitious or especially profound (and not as tactilely immersive as Andrea Arnold’s American Honey), Gerwig’s debut is somehow of its genre and above it, an example of how to follow the rules effectively and how to break them. Mostly, though, it’s a triumph of acting and writing, the culmination of the hard work of a unique and brilliant artistic voice mustering her considerable talents in service of a vision and then getting cast and crew to follow her lead.
It’s a beauty.