Where on earth did a movie this good come from? In Greta Gerwig’s solo directing debut, the Frances Ha star takes a worn-out genre—the coming-of-age teen movie—and makes it irresistibly fresh, insightful, bittersweet and deadpan cool.
Lady Bird is set in Sacramento, California circa 2002–2003 and stars double Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (fantastic here, once again) as an impossible teenage girl in her final year at a parochial high school called Immaculate Heart. Or, as she calls it, “Immaculate Fart.” Laurie Metcalf (equally miraculous) plays her mother, Marion. They love each other but they constantly bicker, play passive-aggressive games and drive each other nuts—especially when it comes to Lady Bird (as Ronan’s character has renamed herself, though born Christine) plotting her getaway to an Ivy League liberal arts education on the East Coast, despite so-so grades and no tuition money. Marion, a nurse who works double shifts at a hospital, is tough, practical and constantly demeaning, anxious to keep her daughter under her thumb, never rising above her modest station. Marion’s sympathetic, lost and depressed husband Larry (Tracy Letts) is an unemployed computer programmer and the family’s much abused peacekeeper.
Gerwig’s characters are full of contradictions, especially when they lose control of the self-imposed roles they take so seriously.
So Lady Bird and her mother shop for clothes at thrift stores and, on Sundays, go to real-estate open houses to tour fancy places they can’t afford. Ronan’s character, based more than a bit on Gerwig’s past, won’t have the cramped life laid out for her by her parents, and her petty acts of rebellion are a feast. Freckle-faced with fading pink-dyed hair, she’s funny, impossible, mean, willful and anguished in her drive and frustration. Gerwig respects her characters; they’re full of contradictions, especially when they lose control of the self-imposed roles they take so seriously. Wisely, she also knows when to give them a swift kick in the pants.
The great stuff here isn’t about plot, though. It’s Lady Bird, who likes admitting to others that she’s from the wrong side of the tracks, and her best bud Julie (Beanie Feldstein, terrific) chomping on communion wafers while yakking about masturbation. It’s Lady Bird auditioning for the school’s musical—a Stephen Sondheim piece, no less—and deliberately mocking every affected, trilling high school soprano we’ve ever encountered. It’s Lady Bird becoming brilliantly alive, ridiculous and pathetic when she crushes on two local guys played, beautifully, by Lucas Hedges (as her unattainable first love) and Timothee Chalamet (as a caddish hipster-intellectual).
The whole film is shot-through with regret and golden-hued nostalgia. Dave Matthews’ “Crash Into Me” gets used to great effect, and cinematographer Sam Levy (Mistress America) makes Sacramento look heartbreakingly pretty. But the performances and Gerwig’s smart writing keep things tough, scrappy and deadly funny.
Lady Bird is easily one of the year’s best ways to spend your time and money at the movies. It bounces by at 93 minutes and maintains a shoulder-shrugging tone that makes its truths land all the more powerfully.
Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.