Christine McPherson (entrancingly played by Saoirse Ronan) is a strong-minded, rebellious yet vulnerable seventeen-year-old—otherwise known as “Lady Bird”—who thinks that life in Sacramento is dull and holding her back, preventing her from being herself. She dreams of attending East Coast colleges and romanticizes life as a writer in New York City or in rural Connecticut. This is at odds with her mother Marion (an intimidating Laurie Metcalf) who is both equally a caring and unyielding mother. This familiar yet nuanced mother-daughter relationship is at the very core of Lady Bird. But the film also beautifully explores the title character’s coming to terms with life beyond her home; Lady Bird is as much about fleeing home as it is about one’s unconditional love for it. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut takes the all too familiar coming-of-age teen drama and makes it uniquely wonderful and fresh.
The film is set in Sacramento during Lady Bird’s senior year at a conservative Jesuit high school from 2002 to 2003, not just a transitional year for Lady Bird but a transformative time for America as well—a sort of loss of innocence for both. The second Iraq War plays in the background, Lady Bird’s mother spouts off fear of another terrorist attack and laments her loving husband’s (an empathetic Tracy Letts) struggle to find a job. For Gerwig, who is in her mid-30s and a Sacramento native, the context here feels personal and intimate. But this shouldn’t be surprising seeing that her work often feels that way. Gerwig may not appear in her film, but her presence and distinct voice throughout it is undeniable.
Despite Lady Bird being publicized as Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, her versatile past collaborations with Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach, like Nights and Weekends (2008) and Frances Ha (2012), should have earned her not only co-authorship alongside those directors but a recognition as an auteur beyond her determined roles as a co-writer and lead actress. Just like Mistress America (2015), her subsequent collaboration with Baumbach, Frances Ha is as much a Noah Baumbach movie as it is a Greta Gerwig movie. Therefore, Frances Ha could be considered a debut of sorts. But yes, strictly speaking, Lady Bird is Gerwig’s first formal step behind the camera, and for a first endeavor, she surprises beyond expectation.
Undoubtedly, much of Gerwig’s artistry derives from her Barnard beginnings in the “Mumblecore” film scene of the late 2000s, in which she was frequently cast in low-budget New York indie films by the likes of Joe Swanberg, Ry Russo Young, the Duplass brothers and Ti West. Gerwig, not being a classically trained actress, renders performances that are minimal and precise, playing similar characters who often balance a charming klutziness with sharp and quick wit. Her writing, much like her acting, is playful and clever, always admiring of urban neurotic intellectualism. Lady Bird’s character, for example, feels and behaves a lot like the heroine of Frances Ha—as if in the new film we are watching Frances’ life in Sacramento before moving to New York. And in some way, we are watching the same character, because a lot of Gerwig’s characters are splashed with some of the same ingredient—herself.
However, that thought shouldn’t take away from Saoirse Ronan’s own impeccable performance. Ronan is perhaps more known for her shy, sweet and endearing characters, from her breakthrough role as the innocent Susie Salmon in The Lovely Bones (2009) to her more recent engagements in The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Brooklyn (2015). But under her darling facade, Ronan is superb at bringing out the fury and fire that burns within her characters and Lady Bird is no exception. Her back-and-forths with Laurie Metcalf are funny, enthralling and at times, heartbreaking. Feeding off each other’s energies, this balance between loving warmth and irritating angst is sustained by both actresses’ remarkable dynamic performances and is arguably the film’s strongest force, pulling us closer to it. But aside from Ronan and Metcalf’s performances, one of the best characters in the film is Julie, Lady Bird’s best friend (brilliantly played by Beanie Feldstein) who worships her and serves as a foil to her difficult relationships not just with her mother but with first time lovers and fair-weather friends.
Gerwig and cinematographer Sam Levy (who shot Frances Ha and Mistress America) set up their shots with warm California colors, carefully framed and delicately cut. Lady Bird moves fast from scene to scene, playfully, like a montage of youth’s most indelible yet fleeting highlights. But Gerwig is not afraid to punctually linger on precise tender human moments. The film reveals itself to be entirely built by these fast-moving scenes in a crucial year of a young woman’s life. As we watch them nostalgically go by, they perhaps remind us of our own home, youth, and the inevitable passing of time. For a film that dwells in the past, Gerwig avoids banal sentimentality, instead offering us something excitingly present and ephemeral.