Greta Gerwig has a singularly open-hearted style, always a delight to see onscreen, and with Lady Bird we get to see how it translates when she’s behind the camera. This is a tale with a unique sincerity, completely lacking in judgment – for its characters, or even for the religion they follow. Even for an atheist such as myself, with plenty of contempt for organized religion of all sorts, it’s actually refreshing to see a movie in which going to a Catholic school actually happens to be a positive part of a person’s upbringing.
Lady Bird still has a pretty progressive sensibility, mind you – one of the supporting characters turns out to be gay, and in Gerwig’s telling of the story, she acknowledges how the circumstantial context, both geographical and religious, complicates that. It’s a comparatively brief moment, but unmistakable.
That’s how this movie overall could be characterized, actually. At 93 minutes, there is never a wasted moment. The editing can be slightly jarring, at times: the scene cuts quickly away, barely before the viewer has a chance to register a subtle punch line. There is some great humor here, the kind that builds, revealing itself with greater depth the more yout think about it. I found myself more than once giggling at something, then laughing harder upon immediate reflection.
The story takes place in Sacramento, California – “The Midwest of California,” as put by the title character (played by Saoirse Ronan, truly fantastic) – which also happens to be where Gerwig is from. Many of us can relate to the sense of affection someone finds they later have for the city they grew up resenting. Christine, who is seventeen and wants everyone to call her “Lady Bird,” is growing up in a lower-middle-class home, with an overworked and overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf, never better) and an unemployed, depressed father (Tracy Letts).
At its core, sure, Lady Bird is just another coming-of-age story, mixed in with a young woman’s fraught relationship with a very caring but deeply imperfect mother. It could be argued that these are tropes, hardly new. But given that pretty much all stories ever told are recycled in one way or another, the key is in the telling. And that’s very much the case here, with Greta Gerwig proving that it doesn’t really matter what the story is, anything can be compelling if you present it in a fresh way, with a keen eye on the particulars of given characters.
The people in Lady Bird are the kind you can easily imagine completely ignoring in real life if you passed them on the street, but in this movie, every single one of them is interesting. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s semi-deluded fearlessness offers an even mix of youthful naiveté and brash confidence which, even if you were nothing like that as a teenager, is somehow easily relatable. For this we can largely credit Saoirse Ronan’s assured performance.
Christine dreams of getting into an out-of-state college with a mixture of scholarships and financial aid barely procured with a slightly spotty academic record but surprisingly high SAT scores. She thinks she’s desperate to get out of Sacramento, but it’s increasingly clear that, years down the line, she’ll probably come back. She alienates and reconciles with a very sweet best friend (Beanie Felstein, also lovely). This is a young woman who thinks she knows what she wants, only to find her aspirations clarified by fairly typical mistakes.
What makes Lady Bird stand apart with this is its wholly realized characters, which makes your heart ache for them in hardship, and celebrate in their joys. Even the supporting characters are fun to hang out with – Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea) as a would-be boyfriend; Lois Smith as a nun with a sense of humor; Stephen Henderson as a priest and drama school teacher. One of the many triumphs of this film is that all the main characters – and nearly all the supporting ones – are likable, and in individual ways. You just have a good time hanging out with all these people.
Opens tomorrow at the Egyptian Theatre.