Greta Gerwig has made an impressive debut feature as writer and director with Lady Bird. It isn’t every day you see a film so attuned to the outsized drama of adolescent life. The film is bursting with life and rich in observations both large and small. Saoirse Ronan plays a Catholic high school senior in Sacramento, California who has given herself the name Lady Bird. She “hates” her home town, but what she actually hates is living on the wrong side of the tracks and being an outsider at school.
She and her mother (played with heartbreaking honesty by Laurie Metcalf) are almost always at loggerheads. She knows her mom truly loves her, but she’s too wrapped up in herself to care about the struggles of her parents. Lady Bird’s father (Tracy Letts) is the family mediator; she counts on him to be her ally but doesn’t notice the challenges he faces every day. Gerwig doesn’t leave this unresolved. Her teenage heroine’s maturing is a slow, often painful process.
Lady Bird is audacious, impetuous, and sometimes cruel. Ronan conveys all of this in an unselfconscious performance that always rings true. Other characters may only have a scene or two but no one is superfluous: there are telling moments with Lois Smith as the school principal and Stephen McKinley Henderson as a drama teacher who is more emotional than his young actors who take on Stephen Sondheim songs that are way beyond their reach.
The vicissitudes of friendship, fumbling encounters with sex, and a constant striving to be cool—even if it requires lying—all figure in Ronan’s 17thyear. I found Lady Bird extremely moving and relatable, as a parent and as a former teenager. It rekindled memories I haven’t thought about in years.
Kudos to Gerwig and all of her collaborators, with special mention for Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend and Lucas Hedges as her first love. Jon Brion’s score sets the tone of the film from the moment it begins. What a fine piece of work this is.