In Greta Gerwig’s triumphant debut as a writer-director, Lady Bird, Saoirse Ronan plays Christine, a Sacramento teen in her final year of high school. I’ve seen lots of good coming of age movies and lots of high school movies, but rarely one as fresh and original as Lady Bird. Gerwig is an insightful observer of human behavior, and she gets every moment of Christine’s journey, with all of her aspirations and impulses, exactly right.
Movies rarely explore the mother-daughter relationship, but this is the biggest thread in Lady Bird. Christine and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) deeply need each other but just can’t get out of each other’s way, perpetually on each other’s very last nerve. Christine insists on being called “Lady Bird”, rejecting even the name her mother gave her. From the very first scene to the last, Lady Bird probes how this most complex relationship evolves.
A girl’s relationship with her father is also pretty central, and the great writer Tracy Letts’ understated performance as the dad is extraordinary. Letts can play a despicable character so well (Andrew Lockhart in Homeland), I hardly recognized him as Christine’s weakened but profoundly decent father. The dad is a man whose career defeats have cost him his authority in the family and he is suffering silently from depression. Yet he remains clear-eyed about the most important things in his children’s lives and is able to step up when he has to. It’s not a showy role, but Letts is almost unbearably authentic.
There isn’t a bad performance in Lady Bird. Ronan soars, of course. The actors playing her high school peers nail their roles, too, especially Beanie Feldstein as her bestie.
Lady Bird’s soundtrack evokes the era especially well. Thanks to Sheila O’Malley for sharing Gerwig’s letter to Justin Timberlake, asking to license Cry Me a River. It’s a gem.
Visually, Gerwig is clearly fond of her hometown, and fills her film with local landmarks. It’s not my favorite California city (and I’ve worked in the Capitol), but Sacramento has never looked more appealing than in Lady Bird. I did really love the shots of the deco Tower Bridge and the Tower Theater sign.
I don’t care for Gerwig’s performances as an actress, and, in writing about them, I have not been kind. As a director, she is very promising, eliciting such honest and singular performances from her actors and making so many perfect filmmaking choices. As a writer, she’s already top-notch. Write another movie, Greta.