By Robert Moyes
To the extent she was known at all, Greta Gerwig was celebrated as the “it girl” star of quirky indie films such as Frances Ha and Greenberg. But this talented actor originally began her career with ambitions to be a playwright. And now, with her debut as the writer-director of Lady Bird being universally hailed, she has taken flight as a remarkably assured and empathetic filmmaker.
Set in the California of 2002, Lady Bird stars Saoirse Ronan (Oscar-nominated for Brooklyn and Atonement) as headstrong, 17-year-old Christine, who’s in a seemingly life or death struggle with her equally headstrong mother (Laurie Metcalf). Christine – or Lady Bird, as she styles herself – hopes to soon escape the conformity of Sacramento by attending an elite arts college in the east; her mother, a nurse striving mightily to keep the family afloat after her husband (Tracy Letts) gets laid off, has decided that something less expensive is all they can afford. And that’s merely the most divisive of many topics that these opinionated and intelligent women bicker over with notable ferocity.
Equal parts coming-of-age story and portrait of mother-daughter conflict, Lady Bird is insightful, blazingly honest … and often very funny as it shows the roller coaster ride of teenage hormones. Christine is settling into a Catholic high school, and soon has boy trouble and various social dilemmas, including desperately wanting to be liked by the school’s wealthy and popular queen bee. Clever enough to get what she thinks she wants, by the time she’s lost her virginity and alienated her best friend, Christine is well positioned to realize she has lots of growing up to do.
Despite covering familiar territory, this hugely entertaining film manages to be both wise and fresh. Whether it’s Christine’s struggle to figure out relationships, her provocative responses to the stifling religiosity of the school, or her intellectual pretensions, her scenes – even the ones played mostly for laughs – always ring true. Small in scale but big of heart, Lady Bird has an abundance of warmth and compassion for all its characters – a memorable achievement in what has been a stunningly bad year for movies. Gerwig has an intuitive grasp of how to be an unobtrusively effective director. And this fine actor clearly knows how to elicit great work from her fellow thespians: Ronan and Metcalf deliver marvelously vivid, believable, lived-in performances.
I’m sure Oscar will take note.