Greta Gerwig's directing debut is exactly what I expected to some extent, a story about an immature young woman coming to terms with her own faults as she enters a new stage of her life. Christine "Lady Bird" MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a high school senior who yearns to leave the suburban boredom of Sacramento to attend college on the East Coast "where culture is." She refuses to let her difficult personal circumstances diminish her confidence in herself. These circumstances include being part of a financially struggling family, not being especially smart or talented, and having some wholly unrealistic expectations of how her life is going to play out. In short, she echoes several characters that Gerwig has played in other films over the past decade, like "Frances Ha," which she co-wrote, and "Damsels in Distress."
What distinguishes "Lady Bird," however, is all the different relationships that the main character has to navigate. There's her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), her biggest booster, who Lady Bird often takes for granted. There are her love interests, theater kid Danny (Lucas Hedges) and wannabe rebel Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). There's her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), a bit of a depressed schlub but mostly a positive presence. And then there's Lady Bird's loving, frustrating mother Marion (Laurie Metcalfe), who keeps trying to bring her daughter's head out of the clouds, and winds up nagging and clashing with her constantly. This is not just a film about Lady Bird, but about her whole universe of friends and loved ones, who all have their own problems to overcome. She spends a lot of the movie testing, redefining, and reconsidering all of these relationships, and through them her values and priorities.
This is very familiar ground for a coming-of-age story, but the execution is really what makes or breaks it, and the execution here is just wonderful. Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe are both fantastic, playing characters who can be completely fed up with each other one minute, and then oohing over a rare find at the thrift shop together the next. Ronan is especially good at finding all these ways to keep reminding us that Lady Bird is naive rather than truly selfish, and still experimenting with her own persona and identity. We get to understand why those around her are willing to overlook flaws and put their faith in her, and it's such a joy to see that pay off in various ways. The film is also densely packed with smaller character portraits, often unexpectedly funny or touching ones. I love the way that these little mini-arcs are sprinkled throughout, some which you won't even notice are happening until a final punchline or sudden reversal. For instance there's the theater program's director, Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson), humanized so wonderfully with a handful of small scenes.
I also appreciate that the movie has such a strong sense of time and place, in many ways acting as a love letter to Sacramento and its community. Gerwig has acknowledged that the film is autobiographical to an extent, taking place where she grew up. This may also be the most positive portrayal of the Catholic school experience in some time, as Lady Bird attends one as a scholarship student, and finds no shortage of healthy encouragement and support there. Faith, though not examined very directly, is certainly thematically present in an engaging way. Like many things in the film, it doesn't call attention to itself, but turns out to be crucial. I suspect that some may find the film's ending too nostalgic, but the movie earns its warmer sentiments as Lady Bird's worldview widens and changes. The film gets a considerable boost from letting some of Gerwig's present day POV sneak into the finale.
"Lady Bird" is a very strong film, with its success due largely to its smart writing and a collection of good performances. However, I will give Greta Gerwig all due recognition for finding her own style and her own voice as a director. "Lady Bird" couldn't be mistaken for the work of Noah Baumbach or any of her other past collaborators. And this has me very excited to see where she'll go next.