by Michael Henley
Let’s not bury the lede: Lady Bird is wonderful.
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a beautifully-rendered slice of teen life, capturing the mixed bouquet of aromas that teenhood often brings. It’s by turns smart, incisive, hysterical, observant, flighty, sweet, wise, silly, cynical, optimistic, poignant, heartfelt, sarcastic, warm-hearted and rebellious. This isn’t a “coming-of-age teen comedy” in the traditional sense. It’s about teens, yes. It has big laughs, yes. It’s central character does, as they say, come of age. And it is, like many teen movies, a period piece, set in 2002 where Dave Matthews and Justin Timberlake still roam the radiowaves. But it prefers utmost to be a sharply-drawn and honest character study.
Its heroine, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a sharp and feisty young woman who frequently thinks she knows better than anyone. So do a lot of teens, we’ll agree. What distinguishes Lady Bird, however, is that she’s also sometimes a sour and unpleasant girl, prone to outbursts and erratic behavior. She is the kind of girl who will shout, who will throw things, who will–in a fit of rage–move just carefully enough to pick words that are truly hurtful. Her nickname, “Lady Bird,” is one she’s given herself in an act of especially childish defiance. She claims to hate her hometown of Sacramento, CA, and desperately wants to move to NYC, “where there’s culture.” The movie’s opening scene shows Lady Bird rebutting mom’s resolution that she will have to go to Catholic school by jumping out of a moving car, shattering her arm. She’ll spend much of the movie in a cast.
Lady Bird is sometimes a selfish young girl. In one way or another, so is every teenager. The movie, at every turn, sees her more regrettable actions in clear terms. It doesn’t endorse them but it does accept them. In many respects, there’s a link between Lady Bird and the Hailee Steinfeld performance from last year’s brilliant The Edge of Seventeen, which was a movie that lent sympathy to the plight of a funny and beleaguered young girl, but also allowed us to understand the people in her life (adults included) who have had more than enough of her bullshit.
This movie is just as refreshingly even-handed, but its comedy is more dialed-down, and its relationships more prominent. Christine’s propensity to lie, deflect and wound are tactics she learned on the battlefield with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who herself can be sharp-tongued and cruel. Mom is constantly sensitive about money, especially when dad (Tracey Letts, never more genial and good-hearted) loses his position and upsets the family’s already weak financial straits. Mom sees the simple act of discarding a costly school jumper onto the floor as a thoughtless betrayal; such a perfect detail that stands in for the concerns that lower-income people have in real life but are never allowed to have in the movies. When a date (Lucas Hedges) comes to pick up Lady Bird one night, he repeats something she said offhand about living “on the wrong side of the tracks” to Marion, and while a lesser movie would let that moment land with a joke, this one lingers on Metcalf’s face as she hears it, an unmistakable clot of disappointment. And like many mothers, she’ll hold onto that feeling like a card until it’s time to finally play it to her daughter.
The relationship between mother and daughter forms the backbone of the story, and other, smaller dramas jump in and out with much the rhythms of real life. The editing is almost stream-of-consciousness the way different issues swim around the hero, and certain moments are glossed over, as if just within a fragment of memory. Christine invests maximum energy in her east-coast college prospects, inspiring no end of doubt and hurt from her parents. She has a best friend, Julianne (Beanie Feldstein), who is wonderful and supportive, but just as capable of being injured by Christine’s ability to act out. Christine gets involved with two different boys (Hedges and also a pretentious Kerouac-wannabe played by Timothée Chalamet), and the movie dispenses with any love triangles. One relationship (the one with Hedges) hits a brick wall, but note the first big scene between the two after that happens, and how the movie has the generosity to give Christine more than one reaction to what she’s hearing.
The second boy, who she meets in a parking lot smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, offering half-believed conspiracy theories and pretentious dreams (“I kinda hate money,” he sighs wistfully) is the kind of drip that we either were or dated in high school, and the movie mines him for gentle laughs, even when he does a thing or two that have a hard effect on Christine. The storytelling threads a very particular needle: refusing to cast villains even though it sympathizes with a heroine who often sees everyone as villainous. Gerwig’s screenplay has a clever structure in the way it sometimes drifts just outside Lady Bird’s perspective to allow us to recalibrate, just for a moment, and reflect that in high school everyone, even the adults, are grappling with a pain that’s near-invisible to the Lady Birds of the world.
The movie even gets the realities of Catholic school right. It sees the institution as simply a place that people go, and maybe they fit and maybe they don’t, but we’re spared lectures on hypocrisy. It has no opinions on religion either yay or nay. The movie has no interest in picking cheap shots or going for easy satire. Even the movie’s most trenchant school scene, an anti-abortion lecture that Lady Bird brings off the rails, isn’t built to serve any agenda other than character development for our lead. The school officials we meet are actually even nice and agreeable, and in one of the movie’s neatest threads, one of Christine’s sincere attempts at troublemaking is referenced not with anger and worry, but with rueful smiles and a drop of wisdom from Sister Joan (Lois Smith). It’s not for nothing that a nun, who is given the proper credit of a woman who has had a long time to reflect on things, drops the movie’s key thematic point: isn’t paying attention the same thing as love?
Gerwig’s movie is one that pays attention. There’s a perfect beat here where mother and daughter are having a bitter argument in a thrift store, and then both wordlessly toss the fight aside to admire a newly found dress on the racks. It’s the kind of moment that’s ironic because it doesn’t follow any sound logic, but it’s also keenly felt because that’s exactly what some people do. There’s grace notes like that throughout: ones that feel disarmingly realistic. Gerwig’s eye even captures detail by omission; check out the way that Catherine’s brother (Jordan Rodriguez) is introduced, with no explanation for his backstory (he looks vaguely of Asian or Mexican descent, but it’s never remarked upon because of course no one in the movie would require an explanation). And throughout the script, there’s a piercing strand of humor—the movie is often very funny more often is the kind of quietly, observational funny, where a universal detail is pegged in a way that no movie has ever done before, and we have to sit there and smile to ourselves.
Ronan and Metcalf deserve Oscars for their work here. There’s no other way to put it. They each play so many complex notes, so purely communicated, so in tune with Gerwig’s direction, that the performances sing with authenticity; the emotions here are so fraught, so susceptible to overacting, and they both step so nimbly and arrive at places that have not a taste of overreach. But the supporting cast is magical as well (Hedges, so good last year in Manchester by the Sea, shows more than ever he has a corner on complicated teen roles, and Feldstein, on the evidence here, is a major star in the making). And so does Gerwig deserve recognition, for her superb script and surefooted direction, and her very specific tone that cherishes Lady Bird, even while reserving her right to occasionally take her down a peg. So correct is Lady Bird, so good and so well put together, that it ends in precisely the right moment—not the scene you’re expecting, but instead the one right before it, which puts such a perfect period on the movie’s central thought in a way that an obligatory extra scene never could. This is one of the absolute best movies of the year.