There’s a haunting clarity that hits women when they look back at their reckless youth and reflect on how we treated our mothers. When we were teens, they seemed petty tyrants hungry to criticize everything from our grades and clothes to our posture and friends. But as we grow and encounter the oft-merciless world for which our mothers strove to prepare us, we come to understand their perspective. Looking toward our futures, they sometimes sacrificed our affections for our good. But neither were they flawless in this. It’s a hard to accept your parents want what’s best for you, yet are flawed. That is the lesson at the heart of Greta Gerwig’s stupendous coming-of-age dramedy Lady Bird.
Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf star as two uncompromising women, both aptly described as “scary and warm.” High schooler Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Ronan) is a poor student with a penchant for drama, a short attention span, and a dream of escaping her hometown of Sacramento. Not short on ambition, she dreams of going to a liberal arts school “where culture is, like New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire where writers live in the woods.” However, her hard-nosed mother Marian (Metcalf) pleads for her to be realistic, stressing their middle class family can’t afford such lofty college goals, even if Lady Bird could get in with her mediocre grades. This college conflict boils on the backburner of Lady Bird. In the fore, the eponymous heroine whirls and stumbles through her formative senior year, experiencing her first love, her first time, her first breakup, and more.
After years of playing the indie It Girl, Gerwig returns to the director’s chair for the first time since 2008’s Nights and Weekends, an intimate mumblecore offering she co-helmed with Joe Swanberg. In between, she co-wrote a pair of striking dramas with Noah Baumbach, in which she also spectacularly starred, Frances Ha and Mistress America. Lady Bird is the elegant and exciting next step in Gerwig’s artistic evolution.
The film feels deeply personal, exploring moments of girlhood that are funny, complicated, and even ugly as Lady Bird lashes out at friends and family with stinging sass and insults. Impetuous and angry, she is not an affable protagonist. Yet the raw vulnerability in Gerwig’s script paired with Ronan’s electrifying performance commands audiences to care for this whirlwind of a girl. Beyond that, Gerwig’s script boasts a vibrant maturity that refuses to paint either Lady Bird or her mother as villains. They are both complex, strong-willed women who care deeply for each other, but are coming from such different perspectives that makes conflict inevitable, and almost constant. It’s such a routine of the teen daughter/mother bond that the pair can abruptly break from it to easy mirth with a comical ease. For instance, when a heated argument about where Lady Bird will spend Thanksgiving is punctured once her mother pulls out the “perfect” pink dress from the thrift store’s cluttered racks. The tension disperses as both gush over its lovely lace. (“Don’t you love it?!”)
There’s an easy yet unnerving authenticity in Lady Bird, making it feel like a welcoming yet soul-baring memoir. Each performance feels lived in, fresh yet familiar. Ronan, uncharacteristically gruff and snarky, is already drawing Oscar buzz, as is Metcalf, who brings a relatable world-weariness to this caring but intimidating mom. Art house It boys Lucas Hedges (Manchester By the Sea) and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name) dazzle as two of Lady Bird’s crucial crushes, one a beguiling theater kid, the other a brooding book worm. The storied Lois Smith is pure delight as a whip-smart nun who proves an unexpected ally to Lady Bird. But the scene-stealer here is Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising’s Beanie Feldstein.
She plays the heroine’s happy-go-lucky best friend, Julie, who cruelly takes the brunt of some of her worst moods. Feldstein’s big brown eyes tremble with enthusiasm, hurt, or jubilation, sucking you into Julie’s every all-consuming emotion. With each reaction, she amplifies the emotional impact Lady Bird’s rashness, for better and worse. Whether they are snacking on communion wafers (“They’re not consecrated.”), or tearing into each other in the schoolyard (“You know your moms tits are totally fake!”), Julie and Lady Bird’s bond becomes a key element of the film’s dynamic chemistry, sparking with humor, heart, and–at times–heartbreak.
Gerwig has created a remarkable portrait of girlhood, and of that most perilous time of mother-daughter relationships. Her cast brings Lady Bird’s Sacramento to vivid life in every frame, every emotion, and every joke. And while the film delves into issues of insecurity, poverty, peer pressure, sex and depression, it feels light, life affirming, and joyful, yet never in a way that undercuts its most dramatic moments. In short, Lady Bird is a wonder, and a near-perfect coming-of-age film.
Kristy Puchko (@KristyPuchko) is a New York-based film critic and entertainment journalist, her work has appeared in Vanity Fair, IndieWire, Nerdist, and Pajiba (to name a few). She’s a co-host for the Sirius XM show It’s Erik Nagel, and has taught a course on film criticism at FIT. To see more of her work, visit DecadentCriminals.com