In case anybody somehow managed to overlook such a fact, Greta Gerwig is truly something special, and her directorial debut only works to further cement such a sentiment. After unforgettable turns in brilliant feminist fare such as Frances Ha, 20th Century Women, and Jackie, Gerwig takes a step back from being in front of the camera to create a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story that is anything but ordinary. Brimming with Gerwig’s unmissable charm and energy, the actor/writer-turned-director does not even have to appear onscreen for a second for her presence to be splashed across every scene. Directed with the most tender touch, Lady Bird is undoubtedly one of the year’s very best, infused with so much love and care that it hurts.
The year is 2002 in suburban Sacramento – dubbed the “Midwest of California” by the protagonist herself – and Lady Bird is itching to be anywhere but home, her optimistic teenage hopes and dreams absolutely on fire. As the film opens with a scene between her and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), sitting in the car, Lady Bird insists that after she graduates from high school, she’s only going after liberal arts colleges in the East coast. “I want to go where culture is, like New York, or Connecticut or New Hampshire,” she says, sparking only one of the many fiery mother-daughter arguments to come as the story unfolds. Defiantly, Lady Bird jumps out of the moving car, forcing her to sport a pink cast for a bulk of the film, a symbol for her unrelenting rebelliousness.
Born Christine, the Catholic schoolgirl only answers to Lady Bird, insisting that it’s her given name, given to her by herself. She’s on the final leg of her high school years, preparing to spread her wings and fly far, far away from home, even though her family is not wealthy enough to afford it. Lady Bird captures the exciting uncertainty of that adolescent blank canvas, of having the future just right at the tips of your fingers, only to realize that growing up isn’t just fun and games all along. It’s a messy journey of taking friendships for granted, trying to fit in where you don’t belong, being ashamed of your roots, and yes, hating – but really, misunderstanding – your parents.
As much as Lady Bird is about its titular heroine, it’s also equally about her fearless, unforgiving mother, Marion, and the complicated relationship between the two women. Marion is not one to coddle her eighteen year-old rebel – she’s brutally honest herself, and her friction with Lady Bird serves as a painfully perfect example of the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters. She’s a true force to be reckoned with, much like the daughter who resists her every move. On the other hand, Tracy Letts, as Lady Bird’s father, delivers a gentle, moving performance, emblematic of that one parent who babies the child just a little bit more. He’s the good cop to Marion’s “bad” cop.
Like a typical teenager, Lady Bird goes through her various phases, trying each hat on for size while trying to maintain her own sense of authenticity. Saoirse Ronan is again magnificent, effortlessly owning the part and embodying Lady Bird’s teenage angst with impeccable vulnerability. Backed by an all-star cast of Beanie Feldstein as her best friend, Julie; Lucas Hedges as her first boyfriend and theater nerd, Danny; and Timothée Chalamet as the chain-smoking anarchist slash cool guy, Kyle; Lady Bird weaves in and out of relationships and changes her personality to fit her flavor of the week, eventually forced to learn things the hard way. Ultimately, she realizes, it’s much easier to stop pretending, that it’s okay to be who you are and to be where you’re from.
True enough, Lady Bird also comes to the conclusion that there really is no place like home, but not until she’s left the nest. The honesty that emerges out of every scene is a testament to Gerwig’s own fearlessness, unafraid to show the painful truths that Lady Bird herself must come to as a young woman whose adolescent tenacity is both her biggest strength and weakness. Lady Bird is a fine example of the magical possibilities that unfold when women are able to tell their own stories without restraint. Funny as it is heartbreaking, Gerwig breathes new life into a classic formula with her directorial debut, making every moment feel like new again.