Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig’s first solo directorial effort, and it covers some familiar ground. It is essentially a teen movie, much like Sixteen Candles and others, but Gerwig is smart enough to avoid some of the pitfalls that those movies fall into. The film is sentimental but not too much, and nostalgic but happily so, and has a great performance by Saorsie Ronan.
Gerwig is from Sacramento, California, and apparently has mixed feelings about it. There’s a title card at the beginning from Joan Didion: “Those who halk about the hedonism of California have never been to Sacramento,” and later Ronan will call it “the Midwest of California.” Gerwig has said this is not a straight autobiography, but she clearly knows of what she films, and we can assume that the title character, a free spirited high school senior, is the stand-in for the writer and director.
Lady Bird covers senior year of high school, 2002-2003. The film begins with the end of a college tour with Ronan and her overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf), and to escape her mother’s hectoring Ronan jumps out of a moving car. She wants to go to the East Coast for college, somewhere like Yale but not Yale, because she couldn’t get in there. She has a best friend (Beanie Feldstein) and attends Catholic school because she has a scholarship and her older brother once saw a guy get knifed at the public high school. Her father (Tracy Letts) is of fragile employment, and has more of soft spot for her idiosyncratic ways (to start with, her actual name is Christine, but she changed her name informally to Lady Bird).
Anyone who has ever gone to high school will recognize the arcs. She joins the theater group and gets a boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) who turns out to be gay (assume all theater boys are gay until proven otherwise). She then takes up with a cooler kid, who’s in a band (Timotheee Chalamet) and gives him her virginity, but she is upset that he is not also a virgin. She will drift away from Feldstein and hang out with the popular girl (Odeya Rush) but will lie about where she lives, as she calls it, “on the wrong side of tracks.”)
I think every intelligent, creative student has a story like this in them, and I’m glad to have watched it, but it doesn’t really push the envelope. Lady Bird is enjoyable and authentic (I like the way it doesn’t sugar coat the family’s financial struggles) and there are some very funny lines. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it is better than most of them. There are a few missteps–a subplot involving a priest (Stephen McKinley Henderson) creates questions that are never fully answered.
Ronan, who will probably get an Oscar nomination, is terrific. She is one of only three performers who have been nominated as a minor and an adult (the other two? Mickey Rooney and Jodie Foster) and is clearly a major star in the making, if she already isn’t one. Gerwig, for her part, is a wonderful actress but now a multiple threat, and I look forward to future films from her.