Lady Bird captures the feelings of high school – exhilaration and queasiness chief among them – better than any other film in years. Still, it is so much more than a typical coming of age story: writer and director Greta Gerwig, making her solo directing debut, looks at her characters warmly, with ample psychological and anthropological depth.
The sting of recognition is a regular feeling in the film (I graduated high school right around the same time as Gerwig’s hero), and yet the emotions that inform specific experiences are universal. In scene after scene, Lady Bird never waivers from its command of tone, to the point where I no longer felt awkward and simply trusted Gerwig and her actors to guide me through a fraught, observant journey.
In another commanding performance, Saoirse Ronan steals the show as Christine, a strong-willed high school senior at a Sacramento Catholic school. Excuse me, I should not call her “Christine,” since she prefers the name “Lady Bird” instead. Her friends and family indulge this affectation, up to a point: her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is prickly and constantly disappointed, while her sad sack father (Tracy Letts) is more deferential.
Gerwig follows Lady Bird throughout her senior year, hitting upon all the major milestones: the school play, college applications, boys, friendship, and prom. Our hero is keenly aware she is different from her classmates, for two reasons. She comes from modest means, despite her Catholic school tuition, and she yearns for an impossible ideal of experience, taste, and culture. Disappointment defines her senior year, at least until she learns to stop being stubborn and think about how others might feel.
The dialogue is prickly and authentic. Lady Bird is smart, but nearly as smart as she thinks she is, so one of the film’s joys is how she fakes her way into whatever position she wants. There is an early scene where she sees Danny (Lucas Hedges) in a supermarket, and pretends to know Jim Morrison just to be cool. Later Danny and Lady Bird strike a romance, but Gerwig does not go for the easy, typical tonal see-saw of awkwardness and relief. In Lady Bird, these moments exist within seconds of each other, so Gerwig conditions her audience not to dread what comes next, and instead go along for the ride. The sub-plot with Danny culminates understated power: Lady Bird is finally confronted with real vulnerability, leading to the film’s first real hint that she might be OK, after all.
Unlike many other high school films, Lady Bird’s point of view is omniscient. Gerwig shifts the perspective from Lady Bird to the supporting characters, particularly her parents, so her small-stakes high school drama is a small part of a larger canvas. Her mom and dad are struggling financially and in their marriage, and we see how their kid’s asides sting in a way she never could. Even worse, Lady Bird’s best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) is losing the strength to tolerate her narcissism.
The camera is observant, never dwelling on a scene or punch line. Gerwig frames her shots shrewdly, with some experimentation and minus all the flourishes we typically see from an early film. When Lady Bird and Julie skip class to eat communion wafers, they lay on the ground and Gerwig films them so they’re upside down. It’s a minor rebellion, and the sort of off-kilter perspective Gerwig sometimes goes for, except never making a big deal about it.
I would be remiss not to mention how Lady Bird perfectly captures the mores and feelings of high school in the early aughts. Lady Bird turns her attention to Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and he is exactly the sort of boy someone at her age would want: he is sullen, with wafts of curly hair, who would rather read Howard Zinn than go to a party. All the period details strike a balance between pretense and sincerity. Lady Bird lies in order to be cosmopolitan, and later uses a Dave Matthews Band song to assert her individuality. That Lady Bird includes a sincere defense of DMB, to the point the band’s detractors may revisit the group, only speaks to its charm.
Lady Bird has the wisdom to ends well past graduation, a more natural ending point. Instead, Gerwig follows her hero to college and beyond. During these final scenes, where friendships are cemented and futures seem bright, a strange thing starts to happen. An entirely new conflict emerges, one that unfolds silently. It involves Ronan and Metcalf, two fiercely committed actors, and its conclusion is not easy. Perhaps Gerwig draws from real life – her vision of Sacramento comes with the weary nostalgia of someone who suffered through living there – except the film is too sharp, and too acutely felt for that to be the only answer. This film is a triumph for Gerwig, and Lady Bird is so great that it would be insult to call it a promise of what’s to come.