Lady Bird ends up accomplishing several things at once – first, it manages to further cement Greta Gerwig as a powerful force in American Indie cinema. Second, it helps delineate the work she’s done with other indie auteurs, with her Baumbach collaborations rightfully lauded but sometimes coming under the wing of the already firmly established director. There’s no messing around here, Gerwig is a terrific talent on screen and on the page, and now we’ve got proof that as a director she’s taken it up to a whole other notch.
Structurally the film is a relatively straightforward coming of age family dramedy, yet has a welcome bite and more than its share of originality and freshness. At the outset we meet Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) on a road trip with her mom (Laurie Metcalf), weeping as the last tape in a Steinbeck audiobook ends. With silence filling the car the two begin to bicker, only to have Lady Bird in a fit of pique throw herself from a moving car.
It’s a shocking moment played for both pain and laughter, these twin tones deftly balanced throughout the film. We meet her dad (Tracy Letts), a taciturn and warm figure that contrasts with the more argumentative mother. Lady Bird’s in her last year of high school, trying to get by thanks to her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein). When auditioning for a musical she falls for the lead Danny (Lucas Hedges) and the two hit it off. With a later introduction to Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) through classmate Jenna (Odeya Rush) Lady Bird finds her flight on a different path, briefly forgetting what really matters to her.
All these machinations take place in Gerwig’s own hometown of Sacramento, and the city provides a tapestry upon which she is able to draw both the beauty and banality of where she grew up. There’s a wonderful specificity of the tale, with street numbers called out or local hangouts designated, along with feelings about the good or bad side of a town that still has a particularly suburban comfort to it. As bad as things get these characters are still in a kind of shared cocoon, and while this might lack the drama of a more metropolitan setting, it feels like the entire world to those within.
It’s easy to find elements that feel entirely autobiographical throughout, from cringe worthy experiences through moments of elation, but that may undermine the skill with which Gerwig makes the imaginary feel entirely real. Ronan is a wonderful muse, perfectly balancing the awkwardness of youth with the tenacity of a creative soul. There are echoes to Frances Ha (think of this as a kind of prequel), or even Anderson’s Rushmore, yet Lady Bird is very much its own thing, feeling both comfortable and entirely original at once.
Much of this freshness is down to Gerwig's witty writing, feeling at every moment that the words coming out of the characters' mouths are their own, not just the musings of the author. The fraught mother-daughter relationship is especially well realized, and if things end up working out the way they're expected, it still feels at every turn believable and convincing. It’s in these well captured performances that Gerwig’s skills as a director shines, with the events captured without much in the way of flourish but very much appropriate for the story being told.
Sure to strike a powerful chord for anyone channeling their inner seventeen-year-old, Gerwig’s Lady Bird delights with its changes in tone and terrifically realized characters.