Great Gerwig’s witty charm is undiluted in savvy coming-of-age comedy
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Cast: Saorise Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts
For the past several years, actress/writer Greta Gerwig has served as an indie film muse to herself and others (see for example: Joe Swanberg’s LOL and Hannah Takes the Stairs, Jay & Mark Duplass’ Baghead, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, Greenberg and Mistress America, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress, Daryl Wein’s Lola Versus). With her newest, the coming-of-age semi-memoir Lady Bird, Gerwig steps fully behind the camera to write and direct, leaving the acting duties to others.
The wisely chosen Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn, Hanna, The Grand Budapest Hotel) is our cinematic Gerwig stand-in, Christine McPherson, whose “given name” is “Lady Bird”—in that, as she puts it, “I gave it to myself.” Tottering on the edge of her senior year in high school (Catholic school, no less), Lady Bird is contemplating applying to as many East Coast, Ivy League-ish schools as she can name—not because she’s such a shining academic example, but because it will allow her to escape the grip of boring Northern California and get away from her overbearing, hypercritical mother (Laurie Metcalf from “Roseanne,” using her sitcom skills to consummate effect). Needless to say, mom is firmly opposed to this flight plan, counseling her daughter to settle for more local (not to mention cheaper) options.
Lady Bird has pretty much been the poorest kid in the richest suburb of Sacramento her whole life. (“The Midwest of California,” as she terms it.) Mom works double shifts as a nurse at the psychiatric hospital, and dad (famed playwright/actor Tracy Letts) has just lost his job—which puts a serious crimp in Lady Bird’s plans to jet off to the glamorous world of the East Coast academia. (“Part of my job,” cautions a school counselor, “is to temper your expectations.” To which Lady Bird quietly grouses, “That seems like everybody’s job.”) Creative and smart, though not particularly scholarly, Lady Bird starts hanging out with the theater nerds in her school. (I hear, ya, sister.) Lady Bird wants to be a rebel, but she’s got so little to actually rebel against—aside from middle class boredom and an overworked mom who cares too much.
Like a lot of indie coming-of-age films, Lady Bird isn’t in a hurry to impart any particularly dense, life-changing narrative. Problems with grades, money, friends, family, jobs and virginity follow over the course of Lady Bird’s eventful senior year. (All set against the backdrop of the tumultuous 2002 Gulf War, unfolding in the background on TV.) But the everyday details here are so infused with Gerwig’s energy, wit and heart, the film continually pops off the screen and into the laps of its audience. Ronan is completely engaging as the indefatigable dreamer who can’t seem to nail down a specific dream. Gerwig seems incredibly savvy to the joys and attendant horrors of our teenage years. But she’s got the wisdom of adulthood behind her now. And Lady Bird is at its finest when slowly confronting the idea that maybe we didn’t see our world quite as clearly as we thought when we were young. Maybe your parents aren’t really the devil. Maybe the friendship of popular kids isn’t a currency that will outlast 12th grade. Maybe that sweet theater nerd who doesn’t touch your boobs because he “respects” you so much is actually inclined in a different sexual direction. What seems obvious as an adult is Earth-shattering as a teen.
Gerwig doesn’t break any particularly new ground here (like, for example, Lukas and Coco Moodyson’s blast of teenage punk rock feminism We Are the Best!). At the end of the day, she’s following relatively closely in the arty, funny footsteps of those she’s collaborated with (Swanberg, the Duplass brothers, Baumbach, Stillman). And yet, pure and undiluted Gerwig is a perfectly balanced cocktail of sweet and cynical, snarky and sincere, heartfelt and hilarious. If you are or ever were a deeply dissatisfied teenager, Lady Bird knows how you feel … or felt.