There’s a sense of authenticity that elevates Greta Gerwig’s coming of age drama, a feeling of lived experience that makes it more than just another rite de passage film following a callow youth on the journey to adulthood and (hopefully) self-awareness. In the broad strokes it covers a lot of the same ground as Howard Deutsch’s and John Hughes’ Pretty in Pink; however, it’s the specific details, the deft sketching of a time, a place, and a relatable if not universal experience, that makes Lady Bird sing.
Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a high school senior living in the uncool city of Sacramento, California, circa 2002. Pretentious, selfish and more than a little lazy, Lady Bird (she gave herself the nickname) wants nothing more than to leave her embarrassing parents (Laurie Metcalfe and Tracy Letts) behind and be accepted into a cooler milieu than her suburban, wrong-side-of-the-tracks – whether it be with the hip clique at school or at one of the East Coast Ivy league colleges she dreams of attending. Her actual problems are much more prosaic; her dad is freshly laid off, her mum is caring but hyper-critical and prickly, her love life is awkward, her grades are probably not good enough to get her where she wants to go. What is a girl to do?
The chief pleasure of Lady Bird is watching the central character kind of snap into focus as a human being, getting a handle on the kind of person she wants to be and how she relates to those around her. Ronan, one of our best young actors at the moment, is simply excellent in the role, making a thousand smart choices that turn what could have been a pretty unsympathetic character into someone recognisable and likable.
The most valuable presence here is Laurie Metcalfe, who does a lot of emotional heavy lifting as Lady Bird’s hard-working, pragmatic but sometimes instinctively cruel mother, trying to “tough love” her flighty daughter into some semblance of maturity. There’s a real complexity to the interplay between the two characters, which mixes affection, frustration, resentment and playfulness as they banter with each other. It’s one of the best mother/daughter relationships seen on the screen, and the beating heart of the film.
It’s a big heart, too – Lady Bird is more a work of portraiture than anything else, but it digs right in under the skin of its characters to deliver something truthful and touching. It’s not the slog that that makes it sound, either – this is a deeply funny film that still manages to grapple with heady emotional territory.