By the time you read this, you’ll probably have a pretty good idea of what the movie “Lady Bird” is about, seeing as how it’s the kind of modest, miraculous low-budget gem that takes on a life of its own. But sight unseen, the title sounded a lot like a sequel to last year’s “Jackie,” seeing as how LBJ succeeded JFK in office, and Lady Bird was the name of his wife. Turns out Lady Bird was also the name restless high school senior Christine McPherson picked for herself — a first act of defiance in a battle to assert her own identity as separate from her parents.
“Lady Bird” is indie darling (and one-time mumblecore muse) Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, and the character is basically her, 15 years younger and played by Saoirse Ronan, sporting a vampire-red rinse and a face full of acne (both signs of its attention to detail). Early Telluride reactions seem particularly impressed that such an accomplished film could be anybody’s first, although those who’ve been following Gerwig’s career surely saw it coming: She’s been starring in, co-writing and even co-directing smart, soul-baring dramedies for more than a decade. The real surprise is just how honest and personal this film proves to be — again, par for the course with Gerwig, and yet, fairly rare among first-time directors, who haven’t had nearly so much practice simply being real.
Just think, it took Mike Mills 11 years to work up to examining that chapter of his life in “20th Century Women,” a movie in which Gerwig played a key supporting role, and a spiritual model for this richly complicated homage to her own mother (a once-in-a-lifetime part for Laurie Metcalf). But the more appropriate comparison might be to “Frances Ha,” which also turns on a young woman’s what’s-in-a-name coming-of-age concerns.
The only thing missing from “Lady Bird” is Gerwig herself, although one could argue that she inhabits every frame of this movie, and especially those in which Ronan appears — that’s how thoroughly the young Irish actress channels her Sacramento-raised writer-director. And wouldn’t it be great if this were but the first instance of a career-long series of stand-ins, the way Woody Allen casts stammering act-alikes to basically play him on screen? Not that you have to be familiar with any of Gerwig’s previous roles to appreciate “Lady Bird,” and considering the college-age demographic to which this A24 release is most likely to appeal, the vast majority probably won’t have seen a single one.
Absorbing Gerwig’s mannerisms and way of speaking, Ronan comes across as a bright young woman who feels as if she’s only experienced a fraction of what life has to offer. She also looks less like a Greta than she does a Lady Bird. The self-selected nickname not only suits her character — fancifully girlish, yet eagerly anticipating womanhood — but is a lot less eccentric than the affectations other screenwriters invent to distinguish their oddball teen characters (say, Bud Cort’s faux suicides in “Harold and Maude” or Paul Dano’s notebook writing in “Little Miss Sunshine”).
Gerwig isn’t being quirky merely for the sake of being quirky, but to make a point, and that point is: How’s a middle-class gal with average grades and no hobbies supposed to distinguish herself from her parents, much less her peers? There’s the Manic Panic red hair, of course, but beyond that, “Lady Bird” is about that universal late-teen need to reject our parents’ advice and to pave our own way, even at the cost of making a few easily avoidable mistakes. Only then do most of us come to appreciate how right our parents may have been.
In the opening scene, Lady Bird’s mom (Metcalf, in her meatiest role since “Roseanne”) is chaperoning her on a college tour, basically any school within driving radius of Sacramento, where the McPhersons live modestly (unemployed dad Tracy Letts and adopted brother Jordan Rodrigues round out the family) and send their daughter to a private school on scholarship. Like so many movie teens, Lady Bird really wants to get as far away from home as possible. She believes that she has outgrown Sacramento — as Gerwig must have felt when she herself went off to college — but in truth, the movie doubles as a sweet homage to a city seldom depicted on screen (coincidentally, it’s also where Ben Stiller lives in college-application comedy “Brad’s Status”).
Loosely structured and jauntily paced, the events of “Lady Bird” span the 2002 school year — although the film inexplicably skips from prom to its freshman-year coda at the end, breezing by the last summer at home when so many coming-of-age films unfold. It’s a genre that’s already been explored from practically every angle, though as a writer, Gerwig shows a gift for specificity that turns her first audition, first kiss and first heartbreak into singular events.
Treating each of its characters with respect no how small their parts, Gerwig’s script derives much of its comedy from the nun-run Eternal Flame school (where Lady Bird’s grades aren’t that good, and she has no lasting hobbies to speak of), and to a lesser degree, her friendship woes and romantic disappointments. While nowhere near as sassy as Diablo Cody nor as self-assured as Lena Dunham, “Lady Bird” comes from a fundamentally genuine place — as evidenced by the character’s betrayal of lifelong bestie Jules (charismatic newcomer Beanie Feldstein).
The movie is also frank — and funny — about the awkwardness of first-time sexual experiences, and casts realistic actors as Lady Bird’s two senior crushes: theater geek Danny (“Manchester by the Sea” breakout Lucas Hedges) and aloof rocker Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). But the relationship that matters most is the one between Lady Bird and her mother, based in love but increasingly combative as young Christine asserts her own identity — felt from the first scene, when Lady Bird throws herself out of the moving car when her mom’s nagging becomes too much, with the consequence that she wears a bright pink cast for at least half the movie.
Metcalf has never had a big-screen role as rich as this, and she makes the most of it, playing a character who doesn’t hold back in criticizing her daughter’s faults (from academics to future job prospects), but works double shifts in the psych ward to provide for her future. On the surface, she’s tough on Lady Bird, but Metcalf manages to communicate between each line how it all comes from a place of caring. The big showdown between them involves Lady Bird’s choice of college, and what will become of the family if she goes off to the east coast. Gerwig may have flown the nest, but “Lady Bird” is proof that she hasn’t forgotten where she came from.