As you’d expect from the directing debut of the ever wonderful Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird is an innovator. We’ve had plenty of nostalgic teen movies before, of course, but Gerwig’s film looks set to launch a new wave of longing remembrance of the early noughties, as yet pretty much untouched as a ‘period piece’ era. It’s a time reconstructed with great care in this tale of growing up as a young woman at Catholic school in 2002 Sacramento, laden with tons of little details that bring to life this very specific experience.
As with all great stories that delve deep into one particular character, Lady Bird feels like we’ve been privileged with an invite into a real life. In this case, it’s that of the eponymous, self-named Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), a 17 year old high school senior on the cusp of leaving home for college. Aside from its setting, where Gerwig really separates her film from the pack is in her honesty about being a teenager – Lady Bird is, in most ways, distinctly average, and her life reflects that. There’s no single moment of genius or world-wisdom that suddenly elevates Lady Bird or changes her path, grounding the film in a reality from which deeper emotions and bigger laughs can be mined.
This may be Gerwig’s first directorial effort, but she’s already established herself as a great writer on films in which she’s also starred, and, true to form, Lady Bird is very, very funny. Witty writing and great sight gags keep the laughs coming in a steady stream, and even though Lady Bird draws a lot of its strength from its distinct story and setting, there will be at least one moment for everyone that earns either a laugh or sob of recognition. As any high school movie should be, Lady Bird is unashamedly emotional, bouncing effortlessly between maniacal laughter and proper sadness.
Much of this emotional weight is added by Lady Bird’s mum Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and their contentious relationship, which can switch from jolly to a full blown fight in a single sentence. While Lady Bird gets on incredibly well with her easygoing dad Larry (Tracy Letts), she can never seem to find the right words for Marion, who is angry and belittling her seemingly constantly. At points it’s too much, and a short ‘redemption’ arc as Marion attempts to be a more open mother didn’t quite land for me, but sharp, charismatic performances from Ronan and Metcalf keep their dynamic compelling.
It’s one of Ronan’s strongest displays to date, and even though she’s already played a few older roles, she’s fully believable as an anxious, excitable 17 year old. Meanwhile, Metcalf proves that she should be given far more major movie roles and Letts is funny and kind as Larry. Lady Bird’s classmates are brought to life by a combination of striking newcomers like Beanie Feldstein as best friend Julie, and already established major young talents like Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet as Lady Bird’s first serious boyfriends. Hedges in particular is great, and it’s very fun to see him interacting with peers after his holding his own against phenomenal adult performances in Manchester by the Sea and Three Billboards.
Rather autobiographical as it is, Lady Bird never feels any less than utterly real in its portrayal of teenage life in a close community. Every peculiarity of this uniquely small world is put across with authenticity, great cinematography and set design immersing you in what Lady Bird calls ‘the Midwest of California’, while the carefully curated nostalgia trip soundtrack drops you right into 2002 without overdoing it.
Everything you’d expect from a high school movie is here, from awkward sex to tearful goodbyes via the end of year prom, but Gerwig’s writing is so funny and emotionally articulate that these moments still feel fresh in their execution. As such a funny, sweet, and warm blast of a film, it’s hard to imagine anyone to whom I could not recommend Lady Bird, and I absolutely can’t wait to see where Gerwig’s behind-the-camera career goes next.