The talented writer and actress Greta Gerwig proves that she can also excel in the director’s chair, in her debut film, Lady Bird. The film begins with a quote by Joan Didion: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” And indeed the film, besides being something of a love letter to Gerwig’s home town, defies the stereotypes we tend to project onto the Golden State. It’s a portrait of a girl becoming a young woman, a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, Christine McPherson, who prefers to be called by a nickname she bestowed on herself: Lady Bird.
Saoirse Ronan plays Lady Bird—bright, artistic, and funny, who nevertheless takes herself very seriously, which is part of what makes her so funny. She’s desperate to get out of Sacramento and go to a university in New York or some other East Coast location, rather than any local college, but her mother insists that they can’t afford to pay for school out of state. Lady Bird’s mom is played, marvelously, by Laurie Metcalf. The mother-daughter relationship is at the film’s center—the way Mom is always picking away and finding fault drives her daughter up the wall, and the relationship is often very painful, even though there’s a solid foundation of love underneath. The father, played by Tracy Letts, is more understanding, but also given to bouts of depression, recently heightened by the loss of his job.
Gerwig wrote the film as well as directed it, and she’s populated it with a rich and believable group of characters: Lady Bird’s best friend Julie—wonderful, but not pretty or popular; her irritating older brother and his girlfriend; a dense and conceited high school beauty named Jenna, and a couple of boys who test Lady Bird’s endurance in navigating relationships. This may all sound like what we call a “teen” film, but it lacks the arch, knowing, and saccharine attitude too often seen in movies about teenagers. The point of view is utterly honest and sincere. The characters are a lot smarter than you might expect, but the film also takes the point of view that we don’t know what we’re doing at that age, yet try to pretend we do.
Gerwig knows how to be funny without having to milk a laugh—the humor arises naturally from the characters. There’s a delightful sense of rebellion, but at the same a more, dare I say, conservative sentiment about the love we have without knowing it, for the places we come from.
Besides the excellent writing and direction, and the superb ensemble acting, the movie rests on the capable shoulders of 22-year-old Irish actress Saoirse Ronan in the title role. I raved about her performance in a film called Brooklyn a while ago, which marked her emergence from child star to mature performer. Here she plays an American teenager, and is totally transformed into that persona. It’s remarkable work, and she lends strength and wit and warm-heartedness to the entire picture. Lady Bird is a beautiful movie, one of the most accomplished first films I’ve ever seen.