There’s a scene somewhere towards the middle of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” that perfectly encapsulates the entire film. In it, 17-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) has just had her first kiss with a boy she’s crushing on, Danny (played by “Manchester by the Sea’s” Lucas Hedges). The very next scene is a wide shot as she runs down the street in the middle of the night, out of breath, and pauses to let out a scream of joy, all captured through an unmoving camera.
It’s the moments like these that make “Lady Bird” such a joy to watch: emotionally honest, capturing an entire personality in one sound. This is what a filmmaker truly coming into her own looks like.
Lady Bird — that is the name which she’s given herself — lives in Sacramento circa 2002 (shades of 9/11 hanging color the opening) but wishes to go to school in New York. She has neither the grades nor the drive to actually do this, and as her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) reminds her in the opening scene (before she bails out of their moving car and ends up in a cast), money isn’t exactly flowing since her father (Tracy Letts) lost his job. She goes to Catholic School (as did Gerwig) while she manages her relationships between Danny and eventually new crush Kyle (Timothee Chalamet, from the upcoming “Call Me By Your Name”), in between hanging out with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein).
Gerwig’s skill in writing movies like “Frances Ha” is on full display, as the film moves gracefully over the course of a year in montage form. More impressive is her eye for editing, able to score big laughs at just the right cut (for example: Lady Bird discovering a secret about one of her crushes cuts immediately to her and Julie crying in their car, listening to “Crash Into You”). Not one emotional beat or moment feels false: even the moments we’ve grown used to from countless other coming-of-age films’ work.
While the character of Lady Bird is based off of Gerwig’s own adolescence, she makes her into a wonderfully original creation, with help from Ronan. She can be prickly and a tad self-centered, but you can’t help but relate to her.
Elsewhere, it avoids the obvious and cliched route of an antagonist parent by carefully shading Marion with realistic worries and small moments of bonding between her and Lady Bird. The film opens up with them both asleep in a hotel room, sharing a bed while on a college tour, getting right into the closeness of their relationship. While she is overbearing and overprotective in wanting to keep Lady Bird close to home, Gerwig takes time to show her life and legitimate worries about her daughter and the struggles of being a lower income family (things most teen films rarely ever discuss). They have the kind of relationship where they can be passive-aggressively sniping each other then start suddenly gushing over a prom dress.
“Lady Bird” is a movie you just want to hug. It’s a warm, funny document of growing up told in effortless montage and perfect line readings. It’s a filmmaker getting a chance to prove herself and the hidden depths to her talents, one you can’t help but fall in love with. If this is a sign of things to come, then give Gerwig all the money she wants.