**** out of ****
(for strong language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity, and teen partying)
Released: November 3, 2017 limited; November 22 wide
Runtime: 94 minutes
Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, Lois Smith, Tracy Letts, Odeya Rush, Timothée Chalamet
Irony died on 9/11.
In 2002, an angsty Sacramento high school senior learned that it needed to die in her relationships too.
Lady Bird is the semi-autobiographical directorial debut of indie pixie dream girl Greta Gerwig. No, that’s not true. Lady Bird is much more than that. It’s Gerwig’s teenage diary blissfully wrought to an open book, where the names have changed but the soundtrack hasn’t. Gerwig gives us everything, her whole heart. Her movie literally gushes off the screen.
Timeless for any generation yet entirely of its own, Lady Bird is the defining Coming Of Age story for the 21st Century.
It has every trope you expect (and want), but each is so personally and specifically rendered. Rarely, for example, has a cinematic high school crush pulsated with so many feels. Passions of all kinds rage and some are fleeting, but not necessarily for vapid reasons; more often than not, for complicated ones.
That comes with the territory. It’s an age when you’re trying to figure out who you are, where you fit in, and how. When bonds of friendship can be betrayed by the insecure impulse to be accepted. Life can swing with unexpected intensity, from moments when you feel invincible to others that can cripple you to tears.
Saorise Ronan (Brooklyn) is a magnetic incarnation of Gerwig’s alter ego Christine (a.k.a. Lady Bird, which she insists on being called) and all the thrills, sorrows, and desires that she can’t corral but only express. Ronan is known primarily for period roles in which she must keep her roiling emotions suppressed; here, she’s a hilarious basket case.
Quick-witted and snark-tongued, Ronan plays Christine with a mix of Drama Queen moodiness and unearned confidence, yet she also yearns for the courage to be authentic rather than a poser. These credible internal conflicts make her Lady Bird intriguing, frustrating, and endearing all in equal measure.
Most teen films are about how adults just don’t understand. This one is about the teen who doesn’t. Gerwig’s reflection is nostalgic (without indulging in “remember that” references) but also indicting, extending grace in hindsight to people and circumstances she once scorned but should have cherished.
This is especially true for her mother. Christine has a volatile relationship with her mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf). They may share a cathartic sob one instant but then scream at each other the next. They’re often at odds, but interestingly – and perhaps fairly – it’s not both who fail to understand the other; it’s simply Christine and her know-it-all impatience that lacks empathetic comprehension.
Laurie Metcalf is astounding as a mom who struggles to stay on top of everything (especially after her husband gets laid off), working overtime to create better opportunities for her child only to get grief back in return. With exasperation both comic and painful, Metcalf’s Marion is a mother driven to her wit’s end because she loves her daughter, not any unresolved selfishness or anger. The teenage Christine can’t see this, but the filmmaker Gerwig can.
Christine also attends a private Catholic school, but Lady Bird doesn’t depict it as a stifling regressive atmosphere. On the contrary, the environment these priests and nuns foster is one that’s positive and formative.
Their rules and morals may be traditional but their influence is wise, administered with care and discretion. It’s so refreshing to see a filmmaker of progressive ideals appreciate the value of a religious institution, portraying it and its devout administrators with generous human gratitude rather than secular liberal bias.
But then, that’s the kind of openhanded honesty that Gerwig infuses into the film’s entire fabric, a story that’s personal in every scene and even every moment, told with an artful guilelessness that’s candid, organic, spontaneous, and true, and with insights that feel confessional.
The same can be said of the entire cast, with ensemble standouts including Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea), Timothée Chalamet (the upcoming Call Me By Your Name), and Beanie Feldstein as Christine’s closest friend Julie. Ronan and Feldstein boast a bestie chemistry that truly feels as if it comes from a shared lifetime of ups, downs, and deep affection.
Gerwig has co-written screenplays in the past (most famously with boyfriend Noah Baumbach) and co-directed a 2008 indie with fellow Mumblecore icon Joe Swanberg, but this is her first solo effort for both. Gerwig packs a lot into a brisk ninety minutes, but none of it’s forced, short-changed, or undercut.
It’s the kind of confident, self-assured, wholly complete and revelatory debut that, years for now after a long directorial career, people would look back on it and likely see the first expressions of all her signature hallmarks.
Though inspired by just a single chapter in her young life, Lady Bird feels like Gerwig has shown us her whole self. She has made herself completely known. In return, our hearts are made full because there’s joy in the depth of that kind of knowing. We all want to be known in the same way. It’s a liberation of the most intimate kind.
With our nation divided more than ever, irony is making a comeback. Don’t let it. Sure, it’s good so far as comedy and humor goes, but as a cultural identity it’s really ugly.
Let sincerity and sentiment crash into you, as unironically as this movie embraces that (apparently) now unhip Dave Matthews Band classic. Greta Gerwig did. By the looks of her first film, she still does.