Greta Gerwig, the pixie-like pillar of indie film and an indomitable screen presence, recently starred in and co-wrote “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” with her boyfriend, Noah Baumbach, who directed them. But for her latest effort, the outstanding autobiographical comedy “Lady Bird,” she takes the director’s chair herself and casts Saoirse Ronan as her 17-year-old avatar, Christine McPherson, who has given herself the nickname “Lady Bird” as a quirky affectation. It’s a fine nickname, but now what are they going to call the movie about Lyndon B. Johnson’s wife?
The year is 2002, because why not? Lady Bird lives in Sacramento (“the Midwest of California”), much to her own chagrin, and wants to go as far East as possible for college, much to the chagrin of her mother (Laurie Metcalf). Typical of girls her age, Lady Bird has a fractious relationship with her mom and adores her dad (Tracy Letts), who putters around quietly in the background while Mom plays bad cop about Lady Bird’s grades, college applications, and such. When they argue yet again about in-state schools being cheaper than East Coast ones, Lady Bird expresses her anger by jumping from a moving car, breaking her arm, and writing “F*** YOU MOM” on her cast. So it’s like that.
The film spans Lady Bird’s senior year at a Catholic girls’ school where she has not always put forth her best effort, academically speaking. She and her zaftig best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), aren’t exactly unpopular, but Lady Bird is self-conscious about living in the “wrong” part of town when so many of their classmates lives in tonier neighborhoods. (“How in the world did I raise such a snob?” her mother wonders, not without reason.) LB’s social circle expands when she starts seeing Danny (Lucas Hedges), a boy she meets at auditions for the school musical, and then Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), a willowy bass player, both of whom have popular friends like queen bee Jenna (Odeya Rush). This being a coming-of-age story about a teenage girl, you may rest assured Lady Bird ditches frumpy Julie for cooler friends, with equal reassurance that she eventually repents of this.
Gerwig packs an impressive amount of relatable teen angst into just 93 minutes, covering such topics as virginity-loss, homosexuality, depression, and class struggles, all while maintaining a sharp sense of humor and an authentic voice. There’s not an ounce of contrivance or phoniness. (Joking aside, that’s why the film is set in 2002: because it’s where Gerwig’s memories of this stage of life are.) I don’t know if a teenage Gerwig really did throw herself from a moving vehicle out of exasperation with her mother, but that moment and all of the film’s other moments feel true.
The performances are spot-on, especially the two that matter most: Saoirse Ronan as Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf as her mother. Both characters are vivid and flawed, and both actresses play them with compassion and nuance. Lady Bird is self-centered; her mother is reflexively critical; yet they’re bonded in the unbreakable way of mothers and daughters. When it’s over, you may want to pick up the phone and call Laurie Metcalf (or your own mom, whatever).
A- (1 hr., 33 min.; )