Greta Gerwig has written and directed a trim, beautifully paced, touching coming-of-age movie with an effortlessly superb performance by a talented young actress, Saoirse Ronan, playing a promising high school senior named Christine McPherson in Sacramento, “the Midwest of California,” who yearns to escape the compromising trap set by her cash-strapped family and attend an Ivied university in the East where “there is culture” and grand possibilities are open. In the offing, Christina comes to be seen by her overworked mother (veteran actress Laurie Metcalf in a fine performance) as ungrateful “for what you have”and by her unemployed and quietly depressed gentle and loving father, conspiring with her to fill out covertly the financial aid papers, as wise and deserving. Confusion ensues.
There are no villains. Bad circumstances–largely money problems and the cultural dislocations and impersonal technological changes leading to overnight job obsolescence–bring hardness of heart and despondency to the parents. And Christine’s deep fear of missing out on a bright life, a signal that she is one of those alert and dreamful teens destined (hopefully) for a life of at least some adventure, renders her desperate, angry and deceiving. She and her dumpy and smart best friend, Julie Steffans (played wonderfully by another acting newcomer, Beanie Feldstein) dream of living in big homes in wealthy families and of never scrimping. Christina pursues a sweet-natured boy who lives in one of the biggest houses and who turns out to be impossible as her boyfriend; she is further disillusioned when her next boyfriend, a singer in a popular high school band, proves callous and shortsighted. Out of embarrassment she lies that her home address is a mansion in an upscale neighborhood. She brazenly and criminally manages to have her low math grade raised to a B before she applies to the Eastern universities. All these and the other chapters in her senior year at a Catholic high school are staged in perfect settings–classrooms and hallways, cafeterias and favorite hangouts, pastoral neighborhoods and grungy apartments, high school student drama stages and family holiday dinners.
The bitter scenes of the mother-daughter conflict are sharp and regrettable; the reconciliations, some successful and some not (at least in the moment), are moving and pull you in. Gerwig knows how to involve her audience, and she captures you from beginning to end. Most importantly, she brings home the seriousness of coming of age: you recall and reflect on your own experience. Lady Bird is universal.
And in a directorial tactic I especially like–a sure sign this woman is In The Know–Gerwig had her cast read some passages from books written by Joan Didion, who was born in Sacramento, as preparation for playing their roles in that California Midwest.
You’ll like the ending.