Film Review: Lady Bird

Unlike the rest of us, Greta Gerwig had a high-school senior year that makes a picture-perfect debut as a writer-director.
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Previously when Greta Gerwig donned two filmmaking hats, she shared the writing hat with director Noah Baumbach while she executed the title roles that they had concocted for her to play (Frances Ha in 2012 and Mistress America in 2015).

In her current title role, which in the first and last analysis is Gerwig nervously on the brink of entering the real world after high school, she has sagely left the acting to Saoirse Ronan and focused her empathetic talents on just writing and directing. It takes courage and considerable talent to draw on one’s own coming-of-age and make it as effortlessly entertaining as it is here. The old God-is-in-the-details rule is very much in evidence, and somehow her replays seem achingly real, even fresher.

The character is legally named Christine McPherson, but she prefers her “given name”—i.e., the name she gave herself: Lady Bird—and that’s the name Gerwig has given her film. Only her mother, a stubbornly unmovable object, calls her Christine.

A contentious, independent spirit, Lady Bird is all aflutter, plotting to spring from the nest for some (any) East Coast college—as far as terra firma will take her from Sacramento (“the Midwest of California”)—but there are obstacles to her break to freedom, like good enough grades and overactive libidos at her Catholic school.

Her parents consist of an easygoing dad and a hard-driving mom—he’s out of work and depressed; she’s drawing double shifts to compensate. Beautifully advanced by Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf, it’s a marriage made in Chicago theatre where both Tony winners have toiled but, oddly, never together. They play seamlessly.

On the boyfriend front, Lady Bird has two serious contenders—one a fellow actor in the spring musical, Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, (Lucas Hedges), and the other more of a follow-through bad-boy type (Timothée Chalamet). Both give excellent accounts of themselves, and Hedges has one scene that would bring tears to a rock.

Two indispensible veterans—Lois Smith and Stephen McKinley Henderson—make their bits as the Catholic staff count. For that matter, all the roles are expertly cast.

Ronan’s deeply involving depiction of Lady Bird taking flight is up to the high-water mark of her previous performances in Atonement and Brooklyn, maybe even better. It would be an uncontested solo showcase, were it not for Metcalf’s splendid delineation of Lady Bird’s reality-prone, loving mom, whose fuse is too short for an argumentative offspring. Their head-butting provides the film’s most moving scenes.

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