The quirky, voluminous actress and screenwriter Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America) has really hit a slam dunk out of the football field this time in her directorial debut, Lady Bird. Everyone agrees. The film’s currently at 100 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, probably because the actors bring such heart and sincerity to their roles, which are sensitively written and dripping with awkward truth.
The man I saw Lady Bird with last night couldn’t understand why I left the theater so despondent. “I really liked it,” he said. “Didn’t you?” Of course I “liked” it, but I am a film critic, tasked with a mightier purpose. I need better adjectives than “like!” I weep, for what more is there to say? Do I make a big deal about the lady director, or should I just overuse the expression “coming-of-age?” Let’s shoot for neither and see what happens.
The movie stars Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) as a high school senior named Christine who makes everybody call her “Lady Bird,” since the names we’re given at birth are arbitrary and have little to do with who we think we really are, amIright? She loves her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and at times, they really seem to get along, but it’s complicated. Marion’s an overworked nurse on a psychiatric ward who frets often about money and their lowly economic status in general. That Lady Bird pines to leave Sacramento, California, to pursue college at an expensive liberal arts school in New York City really sticks in Mom’s craw. They can barely afford in-state tuition, Marion laments, and her grades aren’t good enough, and just who does “Lady Bird” think she is, anyway? It’s an awful dynamic to witness, honestly. How can a mother be so obtuse? But I guess Lady Bird’s no picnic herself, plus change is hard, and as the story unfolds, we remember the lesson that when it comes to bratty behavior, everybody has their reasons.
Rounding out the family unit we have Lady Bird’s soft-spoken, Santa Claus-like father, played by the brilliant playwright/screenwriter and apparent actor Tracy Letts (rent Killer Joe today!). Also sharing one bathroom in their crowded home is an older brother named Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott), both of them covered in piercings and lamenting a world that only lets them bag groceries, despite their college degrees.
Lady Bird has a super nice, chubby best friend named Julie (Beanie Feldstein). The girls try out for the school play at their all-girl Catholic school as a way of exorcising their dramatic wiles, plus the play joins forces with the nearby boys’ academy. How else are they gonna meet fellas? The plot thickens just a little when Lady Bird locks eyes with fellow thespian, Danny, and look who’s playing him: It’s Lucas Hedges, fresh off his Oscar-nominated performance in last year’s Manchester by the Sea. (Look out for him as well in the upcoming feature, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). Far be it from me to give away the richness of Danny’s emotional arc here; just get ready for some feelings.
Besides the mother-daughter conflict, the movie expresses a love-hate relationship with Sacramento, which Lady Bird describes as “the Midwest of California.” (Yes, I grew up in the Midwest. And no, my feelings are not hurt in the slightest.) More than anything, Lady Bird is deft at juggling a lot of characters through a well-paced story, each with their own lesson to impart. It’s funny and poignant, with storylines for everyone to relate to. There’s just no getting around it: We are doomed to like this movie.
Lady Bird opens at the Roxy Fri., Nov. 24.