“Do I look like I’m from Sacramento,” asks Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson asks (Saoirse Ronan) of her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) at the start of Lady Bird. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is set in Northern California in late 2002 and likely sees the actress-turned-director mining her youth in the California capitol for her unique coming-of-age story. Much in the same way that Gerwig made a name for herself as the lead in a number of independent favorites with her bubbling charisma and natural affability, Gerwig brings that same feeling to Lady Bird, which is smart, thoughtful, and hilarious as it looks at the life of an outsider trying to find herself amidst the unresolved questions of her future, namely which college she’ll be attending the next fall.
In the McPherson household, money is constantly a concern for Marion and her husband Larry (Tracey Letts). Those financial concerns are affecting the tentative plans for Lady Bird to choose the college she wants to attend, her parents lobbying for her to stay in the area while the young woman wants to make the big move to the East Coast. The parental dynamic isn’t too unlike many American households, with the mother having to take the more stern position while the father happily takes the role of good cop. Though she cares deeply for her daughter, Marion has a way of sniping at her daughter with ice-cold critiques of her appearance and demeanor, a well-intentioned and unwitting verbal cruelty at times.
In school, Lady Bird has a hard time fitting into the button downed Catholic high school which she attends. At least Lady Bird has her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) to help get through the treacherous world of authoritarian nuns and dull subjects. The young women find an outlet in the school’s theater program, and that’s where Lady Bird meets her first love in fellow theater kid Danny (Lucas Hedges). However, that romance fizzles in a shocking fashion and it’s not long before Lady Bird finds herself infatuated with Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a would-be bad boy in a band who rolls his own cigarettes and reads Howard Zinn. In order to get closer to Kyle, Lady Bird distances herself from Julie and makes friends with Jenna, a snobbish young woman of extremely wealthy parentage. Trying to fit in with a crowd by being something she’s not brings forth a whole new set of complications for Lady Bird as she approaches the end of her high school life.
Lady Bird really captures the mother-daughter relationship in a manner unlike any recent film, retaining an emotional weight to the sometime contentious relationship while still finding plenty of humor in the generational bickering. Both Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan bring this complex relationship to life and you’re able to feel for both sides of this divide when they’re engaged in another drawn war of words. Gerwig never allows these characters to lose their warmth even the arguing between the two pushes them into untenable corners, unleashing verbal jabs that hit the most vulnerable areas.
Greta Gerwig also captures that uneasy feeling of high school, those lingering questions of self-discovery that plague the mind of a teenager while always retaining a vibrant wit about it. The lead character must learn that attempting to be someone else in order for the approval of others is dead end road that only yields temporary results, and those results may have created a whole new set of complications with those closest to you in good times and bad. Like every aspect of Lady Bird, Gerwig never loses sight of the film’s comedic content, always injecting a well-timed laugh in the midst of the teenage drama swirling around Lady Bird.
Lady Bird is the latest in a string of coming-of-age films to come from female filmmakers that combine humor and heart that are redefining the teenage genre (other recent examples include Edge of Seventeen and Diary of a Teenage Girl). Greta Gerwig has been a captivating star for some time, but now she’s a captivating writer-director working on the highest level. Gerwig’s Lady Bird is so good as it balances its drama and laughs with an astute sense of tone that amplifies whatever is going on in the hearts and minds of these characters, even to the point that a scene involving Dave Matthews Band isn’t insufferable. We already knew that Greta Gerwig was already immensely talented, but Lady Bird just goes to show that she hasn’t presented the full extent of her talents until now and Gerwig will be a major force in filmmaking for years to come.