Let’s just cut to the chase: Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig (and marking her first time behind the camera), is a perfectly pitched coming-of-age comedy that accomplishes that rare cinematic feat of not only living up to expectations but exceeding them. With the latest star-making performance from Saoirse Ronan (who turned in 2015’s best performance in Brooklyn), Lady Bird is charming and clever and goofy and touching and honest and incredible. As films that resonate go, it’s less the arrow that makes the bullseye and more the arrow that splits that arrow in half to make another one.
At some point in the last 15 years, 2002 became retro; it’s here where we meet Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a senior at an all-girls Catholic high school in Sacramento who just knows she’s meant for bigger things. Her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts) work hard to provide a decent life for her and her older brother Miguel, but their working-class salaries can’t compare with the wealthy classmates who live in dreamy houses in posh neighborhoods with Range Rovers in the driveway.
It’s the start of the school year, and Lady Bird’s got a best friend, a new boyfriend and a role in the school musical. With her dad’s help, she applies to colleges she knows they can’t afford and that she probably won’t get into anyway. She fights with her mom over clothes and chores and money, but still longs for her approval and warmth. For all accounts and purposes, Lady Bird is any American teenager with a certain amount of privilege.
Of course, it’ll all come crashing down (we wouldn’t have much of a movie if it didn’t), and watching as Lady Bird navigates the wheeling emotions of teenage-dom and the discoveries that come with a maturing perspective is as genuine a cinematic experience as one can hope for. It certainly helps that I myself was once a 17-year-old girl, but I have a feeling it’s not just this demographic that is connecting with Ronan’s fierce yet vulnerable, bold yet insecure Lady Bird.
They may’ve been over different issues, but we’ve all had these fights with our parents. It might’ve happened in different ways, but we’ve all had our heart broken that first time. Gerwig’s talked about using Lady Bird as a way to tell the female coming-of-age story, a young woman who’s the catalyst of the story rather than the sidekick, and here she succeeds in the highest regard.
The film uses a fairly safe device to move us through Lady Bird’s year, with holidays and high school milestones marking the time until this little bird has to fly out of the nest (or bust out of it, as the case may be). But even this conventional approach works beautifully, particularly when combined with the production team’s attention to detail that’s so on-point it all but disappears into the background (which is how you know it’s really good). From choker necklaces to song choices at prom to clunky flip cellphones and tube TVs, we’re transported back to a not-so-distant past where 9/11 still loomed large and Lady Bird had no idea what the world has in store for her.
Time will tell if Gerwig’s writing and directing acumen will extend beyond the material with which she is so innately familiar (she was born and raised in Sacramento, attended an all-girls Catholic high school…). But that’s neither here nor there at the moment. Right now, all that matters is that she’s delivered a winning original film that rings true at every level, a story she was the best person to tell. We should all be grateful she was given the opportunity to do so, and if that’s all she ever gives us, it’s more than we deserve.