Okay, I didn’t have high hopes for Lady Bird. From the trailer, it looked like it was going to feature one of those indie heroines who’s supposed to be adorably quirky, but is really just tiresome—the kind of character so often played by Greta Gerwig (in movies like Damsel in Distress, or Frances Ha). Knowing that Gerwig wrote and directed this movie only intensified my dread.
But, surprise! With Lady Bird, Gerwig delivers a wry but warm-hearted portrait of family, home, and dreams in modern America. The family in question is not dysfunctional in any clichéd movie comedy way, but Gerwig captures the gulf of potential calamity in the fractious relationship between a high-school senior (Saoirse Ronan) and her loving, but harried mom (Laurie Metcalf). As in most mother-daughter relationships, one false move or the wrong word might set either one of them off as they try to navigate the minefield of what they think or feel, and their ability (or not) to express it.
The movie begins with a quote from Joan Didion: “Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento.” Ronan plays Christine, who calls herself “Lady Bird,” and is facing her senior year at a Catholic girls school in the suburbs of the state capital. She has few scholastic ambitions, but she’s eager to leave the nest and fledge, preferably to a college on the East Coast “where culture is.” Unlike Sacramento, which she calls “the Midwest of California.”
Lady Bird is close to her mom, Marion (Metcalf); they shop together and weep together in the car listening to The Grapes of Wrath on tape. But Marion is supporting the family with her job as a hospital therapist, since her husband, Larry (the endearing Tracy Letts) was downsized from his tech job. So she’s extra sensitive to any perceived snark from her daughter that she might be ashamed of her working-class family, their plain house, or their lack of disposable income.
It’s true that sometimes for fun, Lady Bird and her BFF, Julie (Beanie Feldstein) stroll down a block of rich mansions in the neighborhood and fantasize about living in them. But it never occurs to Lady Bird to feel shame. She is only prey to the usual kinds of teen angst around love, friendship, sex, finding herself, and getting the heck out of Dodge—and perhaps a bit too ready to chafe against her mom’s iron-willed temperament. (Like when Marion refuses to let Lady Bird get a driver’s license.)
The plot is episodic as the school year scrolls by. The girls take roles in the school musical, where Lady Bird gets her first giddy thrill of having a boyfriend, adorable, respectful Danny (Lucas Hedges, from Manchester by the Sea), who’s almost too good to be true. She briefly falls in with a bored rich girl (Odeya Rush), jeopardizing her friendship with Julie.
When she meets Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a moody boy in a band who declines to “participate in the economy” (by, like, having a job), Lady Bird decides to become “deflowered” by him. Meanwhile, she cooks up a clandestine plot with her father to apply for a scholarship without letting her mom know she’s applied to out-of-state colleges. (Although it’s a bit hard to believe, since she’s not shown to have any particular scholastic abilities, or interest.)
The story is set in 2002, the cusp of the Millennium, when social mores are being reorganized. Lady Bird’s brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), is presented as Latino without commentary; his live-in girlfriend, Shelly (Marielle Scott), his colleague at the grocery store where he clerks, has also blended into the family. But Gerwig’s most trenchant observations concern issues as eternal as time itself—the elliptical orbits of friendship; separating the reality of sex from its romantic mythology; the often fraught, but fiercely devoted relations between parents and children.
It’s no surprise to learn that Gerwig herself grew up in Sacramento. The affection with which she portrays her hometown on screen, coupled with the impatience of her youthful alter-ego, imbues much of Lady Bird with a refreshing ring of truth.
*** (out of four)
Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig. An A24 release. Rated R. 94 minutes.