Lady Bird is a remarkably emotional experience, even if you’re not a teenage girl from Sacramento. Writer-director Greta Gerwig has, in her first directorial effort, relayed a masterpiece of the coming-of-age genre. Lady Bird is a wonderfully human, sympathetic, and smart movie, more in touch with real human emotion than most films of its kind. The film ranks next to my other favorite movie of 2017, The Big Sick, as that all too rare humane masterpiece.
Lady Bird, real name Christine, though she does loathe to be called that, Lady Bird is the name she chose for herself, is an iconoclast. At 17 years old, she has a strong sense of what she wants but not what to do with that information. What she wants is what so many 17-year-old girls wants, to be away from her mother. Don’t misunderstand; there is nothing particularly wrong with Lady Bird’s mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), she just tries to make Lady Bird more realistic and Lady Bird can’t have that.
Marion isn’t a perfect mother. She does criticize too much and is pushy in the way many moms are. She’s also recently the only significant income in her family of five, including her recently unemployed husband Larry (Tracy Letts), their son Miguel (Jordan Rodriguez), and Miguel’s live-in girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott). And, of course, Lady Bird who seems to have no concept of the limitations her family lives within, locked within her bubble of teenage self-involvement.
Boys have become a new focus of Lady Bird’s attention. Attending a Catholic all-girl school, she was rather sheltered until she found out about the school’s partnership with a nearby boy’s school to perform musicals. With her best friend Julia (the wonderful Beanie Feldstein), Lady Bird pursues acting, if only to indulge her theatrical nature and meets Danny (Lucas Hedges), a stand-out actor, up for the lead part. The teenage romance between Lady Bird and Danny is one of the most perfect presentations of first love that I have ever seen on screen, and I have seen a few teen romances in my time.
Greta Gerwig had a terrific rhythm going by the time Danny was introduced to Lady Bird, but once Danny is brought forward into the story, Lady Bird the movie becomes something more. It’s here that we first realize what an incredibly talented filmmaker Gerwig is, beyond her intelligent and intuitive writing. Her montage of Lady Bird and Danny is glorious and giddy, filled with all the heightened emotions and drama of being young and the genuine pathos of feeling something, really feeling something for the very first time. Here, Gerwig in Lady Bird has wonderfully captured the strange and elusive first feelings of adulthood, or what teenagers think adulthood should be like.
Of course, Gerwig is greatly helped by the full bodied and breathtaking performance of star Saorise Ronan. Arguably the finest actress working at this moment, Ronan owns the screen in Lady Bird. She’s always been a wonderful actress but here, Ronan has found a new and unexpected depth. In Brooklyn, she played her age, 24 years old, and yet she seamlessly slips back in time to being a teenager, with all of the self-involved, highly conflated issues that come with the age. It’s a remarkable, transformative performance and one that deserves to earn Ronan an Academy Award.
Equally good is the rest of this pitch perfect cast with Metcalf giving full life to Marion, all sturdy and stern, but with a big, strong, heart. The conflict between mother and daughter is the heart of the movie and rarely has a screen relationship felt as real and fraught as the lives we recognize around us every day. Metcalf and Ronan with Greta Gerwig’s perfect scripting are incredibly real and deeply moving. Every little detail of their conversation sounds nothing like a script and more like something you’ve actually heard screamed through bedroom and bathroom doors in a heated familial argument.
Watching Lady Bird, I could not help but be reminded of another of my all-time favorite movies from another brilliant female director, Waitress from the brilliant and gone far too soon, Adrienne Shelley. Like Shelley, in her very first effort, Greta Gerwig has crafted a humane masterpiece, a film with a deep understanding of and compassion for its characters. Yes, most movies care about their characters but more often than not, those characters feel like just that, characters. The characters in Lady Bird and in Waitress feel like real people, your family, your neighbors, that weird girl down the street, always arguing with her harried but loving mother.
Somehow, Lady Bird feels more real than some real lives. That, for me, is a masterwork. Lady Bird is the kind of movie that reminds me why I love movies, and I live for the next Lady Bird.