Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is an independent, smart, funny and frustrated seventeen year-old girl living with her family in 2002 Sacramento, California. She refuses to conform to what others expect her to be and demands that people refer to her as Lady Bird (“It is my given name. It was given to me by me.”). She also desperately longs to leave California and head east, specifically New York, for college even though her grades are not very good and her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts (who costarred in this year’s very good romantic drama The Lovers)) would have difficulty affording it. Her story is told in Lady Bird, a funny and touching coming of age story lifted by its writing and a fantastic lead performance.
Lady Bird (89 minutes without the end credits) tells a somewhat familiar story: a rebellious high school senior tries to figure out who she wants to be while dealing with her controlling mother and depressed father. Though there are some familiar beats here, the writing is charming, subtle and insightful enough to separate it from some of its peers.
The film was written and directed by indie darling Greta Gerwig. I first became aware of her due to her collaborations as an actor with writer/director Noah Baumbach (Greenberg, Frances Ha and Mistress America). She has a very likable, believable screen presence. She also co-wrote Frances Ha and Mistress America and showed an ability to give voice to, and tell the story of, strong female characters.
Lady Bird is her first credit as a director in nine years and her first solo directorial effort. As a director, she largely stays out of the way and lets the characters tell her story. This was a wise decision. Even though the story itself is not exactly original, the characters are written so sharply that they feel familiar as much from life as from other coming of age stories. I truly liked and cared about Lady Bird and wanted to see her figure out her life. This is in part due to the well-observed dialogue. But Gerwig’s biggest asset as a writer and director is her star.
Saoirse Ronan is only 23 years old and has already been nominated for two Oscars (including a Best Actress nomination in 2016 for her wonderful performance in Brooklyn). She may get another one for Lady Bird. Lady Bird is worlds apart from her Brooklyn character, Eilis. Eilis was a sweet and shy young girl emigrating from Ireland to Brooklyn in the 1950s. Lady Bird, on the other hand is neither sweet nor shy. She enjoys bringing attention to herself and has no problems whatsoever speaking her mind. Both of them care about their friends and family, but Lady Bird has an abrasive way of showing it. She is struggling to figure out who she is and does not think she can discover it while living with her overbearing mother.
As Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, Laurie Metcalf (best known for her television work, specifically as Jackie on Roseanne) is wonderful as a strong, at times mean, women who shows her love through criticism. She is exasperated by her free-spirited daughter and has no idea how to communicate with her. It is impressive that she is able to convey how much Marion cares about Lady Bird despite her constant disapproval of her daughter’s choices (at one point, Lady Bird’s friend Danny (Lucas Hedges, a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee this year for Manchester by the Sea) describes Marion as “scary and warm”). Their relationship is central to the film and the fact that it works so well is a large part of the reason the movie is as good as it is.
And it is very good. Even though this type of movie is quite common, Lady Bird stands out due to the wit of its writing and the strength of its performances. Lady Bird herself may be my favorite character from any movie this year. She is smart, funny, very strong and very vulnerable. Gerwing is an intriguing up and coming voice in film and Ronan is one of the best young actors working today. I eagerly anticipate what each of them will do next.
4¼ out of 5
Saoirse Ronan as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson
Laurie Metcalf as Marion McPherson
Tracy Letts as Larry McPherson
Jordan Rodrigues as Miguel McPherson
Marielle Scott as Shelly Yuhan
Beanie Feldstein as Julie Steffans
Lucas Hedges as Danny O’Neill
Odeya Rush as Jenna Walton
Timothée Chalamet as Kyle Scheible
Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig