We all knew Greta Gerwig was an excellent actress from her extensive and excellent work on screen over the past decade, but with the release of her first directorial project, the teenage comedy/drama Lady Bird, we now know that she’s an utterly fantastic filmmaker in her own right. There are few people in the world who can make these kinds of movies effectively without descending into trite horseshit and steady cliche, and she should be proud to be in that number.
Lady Bird, it turns out, is the adopted name of our protagonist, whose given name is the significantly more boring Christine McPherson, as she journeys through her senior year at a private Catholic school in Sacramento. She’s an artsy working-class type in the midst of the super-rich, and she’s dreaming of going to college out of state, despite the objections of her mother (Laurie Metcalf). Her dream is complicated by her supportive father (Tracy Letts) losing his job, but he encourages her to persist anyway. And so we journey through the school year with her, from picture day to prom and beyond, and what transpires is a wonderfully freeform and deeply engaging first film.
I’ve never been able to sink into a Saoirse Ronan performance quite like I did here, despite being a long-term fan of a number of her weirder work (Hanna, How I Live Now, Byzantium), but boy oh boy does she nail it here. She’s essentially allowed to play sort of an artsy everyman, which isn’t to say that Lady Bird doesn’t have her own defining characteristics but that she’s immensely relatable in her aspirations and motivations in a way that many of Ronan’s roles aren’t. It feels like the actress is just able to disappear into the character, and all of the energy that would have normally gone to perfecting an accent or learning fight choreography goes to perfecting the details around the edges of her character. Even when Gerwig throws some questionable plotting choices in her way (a mid-film spat between Lady Bird and her best friend over the former’s attempts to hang with the cool crowd descends a bit into cliche in a way that I didn’t like), Ronan never takes her foot off the gas, and keeps the quality of her performance steady.
Part of that comes from how well her world is realized by Gerwig’s writing. Lady Bird’s conflicts with her mother feel truthful, rather than seeming exaggerated and theatrical like one might have feared (it’s money and her choice of college — out of state that is — that brings the two to butt heads), and her relationship with her father is a combination of adorable and silly (we get to hear Tracy Letts say “Doritos,” which is about as good as it gets in cinema). Her goth brother and sister-in-law, forced to work at a grocery store even with their Berkeley degrees due to the economic downturn after 9/11, initially seem like one-dimensional jokes, but they begin to reveal themselves as deep and interesting in their own right. There’s so much about this dynamic that could fall apart with the wrong hand guiding it, but Gerwig adamantly refuses to delve into trope, and Letts especially benefits fantastically; there’s an utterly heartbreaking scene in which he realizes that the world has moved past him (you’ll know it when you see it) and the sadness mixed and melded with the hope in his eyes will melt hearts.
Her Catholic school life is equally well-sketched, and her relationship with her best friend, despite that interference, is authentic and stupid in the way that teenage friendships often are (an early scene of the two munching on stolen communion wafers over idle talk goes a long way). Her love life provides a great deal of the non-familial dramatics — her first boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), an amicable oddball from a deeply religious family “betrays” her at a key moment, and as such, she begins to fall for a punk-band poseur (Timothee Chalamet) who I am sure that you have met at some point in your life. Both Hedges and Chalamet are fantastic here, each having the specific details and truisms of their characters realized physically through affect — the former’s theatrical overselling, the latter’s bullshit disaffection (he’s one Chompsky book away from being perfectly accurate, though the Howard Zinn will do) — and they’re both uproariously funny in the process as well.
It’s kind of an inescapable fact that actors-turned-directors pick up bits and pieces from all the filmmakers that they’ve worked with along the way, but what’s truly notable about Gerwig and her style is how she manages to be a synthesis of her influences’ best tricks without succumbing to their quirks and faults. You can see the Duplass and Swanberg influence in her dialogue, full of the kind of lauded truth of mumblecore but without its total fidelity to reality, and the Baumbach in her framing, but with a more essential sense of place than any of his works, the California daze trapped lovingly by cinematographer Sam Levy (a Baumbach regular himself).
As such, Lady Bird eventually becomes both a love letter to Sacramento as much as it is an ode to the joys and challenges of late adolescence. She overplays her hand just a little bit at the end (the ending montage and its accompanying narration put an unnecessary emphasis on a point she makes sublimely in an earlier scene, even if there are good narrative reasons for its justification), but it is ultimately a wonderfully moving and affecting work, full of enough life and charisma to smooth over what small cracks might exist in its bearings. Lady Bird fucking rocks.
Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus. Photo provided by A24.