Just when you think there’s nothing original or exciting left to mine from a coming-of-age story, along comes the totally irresistible Lady Bird – a reminder that no genre is played out when there’s a new artist around to see it with fresh eyes. Screenwriter Greta Gerwig, in a spectacular solo directing debut (she co-directed Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg in 2008), has carved a brilliantly hilarious and heartfelt script out of her own teen life. Not a punch is pulled, and sentiment takes a holiday. All that’s left is blunt honesty.
Gerwig, 34, best known for her stellar performances in the films of Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Mistress America), doesn’t appear in Lady Bird. She’s left the job of playing her teen self to 23-year-old Saoirse Ronan, a miracle of an actress (see Atonement, Brooklyn). She plays Christine McPherson, a high school renegade who insists that “Lady Bird” is her “given” name. (As in, she gave it to herself.) Like Gerwig, McPherson is growing up in Sacramento, California, circa 2002, with acne, a dye job and a house on the wrong side of the tracks. Mom (Laurie Metcalf, incredible) is “warm and scary”; Dad (Tracy Letts) is jobless and depressed. She dreads the notion of staying in NorCal almost as much as she fears of having “unspecial sex.”
It’s senior year for Lady Bird at a Catholic high school where she sinfully snacks on communion wafers, puts a “Just Married” sign on a nun’s car and receives warnings from the mother superior (Lois Smith) to rein in her ambitions. Maybe she should also audition for the school musical, Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” about youthful idealism gone sour. McPherson confides in her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) about her need to escape her home town – she calls it “the midwest of California” – for New York; she theorizes that college enrollment will be down post 9-11. As for her crushes – sexually confused theater geek Danny (Manchester By the Sea’s Lucas Hedges) and uber-cool musician Kyle (breakout star Timothée Chalamet; wait until you see him in the upcoming Call Me By Your Name) – things don’t work out the way Lady Bird plans. As if.
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What the film ultimately comes down to is a battle royale between Lady Bird and her mother, Marion. A nurse who works double shifts to support her family, the matriarch has no patience for her daughter’s big schemes. The two women are cut from the same stubborn oak, but their love is indisputable. Metcalf, fresh off her Tony win for Broadway’s A Doll’s House: Part 2, merits serious Academy attention in her richest film role to date. She’s funny, fierce and all together magnificent. And Ronan matches her beat for beat; with her expert comic timing and nuanced dramatic shading, she is, quite simply, astonishing. The actress lets us into the mind and heart of Lady Bird, right down to her frayed nerve endings.
Sam Levy’s evocative cinematography and Jon Brion’s just-right score add to the mix, along with such period hits as Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” and Dave Matthews’ “Crash Into Me.” But Lady Bird isn’t selling rose-colored nostalgia – it’s after the truth even when it hurts. And as a filmmaker, Gerwig proves herself a blazing talent, generous and tough with all the people she puts on screen. She lets us joke with them and ache with their insecurities, finding the ferocity and fragility in characters on both sides of the age divide. Lady Bird is impossible not to love. Gerwig has turned her personal story of a small-town girl into a full-blown triumph and one of year’s best films.