In a breakout year for strong female performances and compelling films made by women, “Lady Bird” stands above the pack.
With writer/director Greta Gerwig, an actress known for roles like “Frances Ha” (which she co-wrote alongside Noah Baumbach), and lead actress Saoirse Ronan (the Oscar-nominated star of “Brooklyn”), “Lady Bird” establishes a unique space in the crowded coming-of-age subgenre. Its wit is sharp and unshowy, and its characters are lovingly flawed in ways that inspire believable conflict.
“Lady Bird” opens today in Coeur d’Alene.
Ronan plays Lady Bird, a senior at a Catholic High School in Sacramento who dreams of moving far away and attending college on the east coast. Her real name is Christine, which she’s rejected as part of an escalating spat with her seemingly overbearing mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf, superb in a career role).
Lady Bird’s family struggles with finances, and she describes her home to many of the rich kids in school as literally on the wrong side of the tracks. As she works against her mother’s wishes to apply for east coast colleges, Lady Bird develops a relationship with a fellow theater kid (Lucas Hedges, a breakout from last year’s “Manchester By the Sea”), and drifts apart from her longtime friend (Beanie Feldstein).
The core of Gerwig’s film focuses on Lady Bird and her mother, and their conflict is well-established in the opening scene set in a car as Marion drives her daughter home from a college visit. The scene serves as a microcosm of their overall disconnect — Marion is probably too hard on her daughter, but teenagers do have a very specific way of being selfish brats. Gerwig depicts both flawed people with humanity — and the performances by Ronan and Metcalf find nuance and love in even the harshest of dialogue.
Ronan, easily one of the best young actresses of her generation, is astonishing in “Lady Bird.” It helps to be familiar with Gerwig, particularly her performance in “Frances Ha,” because Ronan creates a character that feels like a version of Gerwig as a teenager. It’s a wholly unique performance in its own right, but Ronan channels Gerwig’s dialogue in such a specific, almost-biographical way. Lady Bird feels like a real person, just like Gerwig did in “Frances Ha.” Few movie characters, especially ones pitched as witty and offbeat, can accomplish this feat.
“Lady Bird” isn’t an autobiographical film, though Gerwig makes it seem so in every scene. Everything about its characters, and how they view Sacramento and particularly the Catholic school, has a fascinating specificity. It also takes a stealthy and compelling look at depression and mental illness that doesn’t shift the focus away from its core conflicts.
As superficial as it is to engage in award-season jockeying, there just shouldn’t be a world where Ronan and Metcalf aren’t frontrunners in their respective categories. The film is stacked with excellent, quiet performances, especially Hedges, Tracy Letts as Lady Bird’s father, and Lois Smith as a Sister at the Catholic school. Gerwig’s script and direction better be in the running too.
At press time, the movie boasts an unprecedented 100 percent rating based on 178 reviews. It’s worthy of the hype, though one could quibble about how the rift between Lady Bird and her best friend borrows a little too much from the typical coming-of-age movie playbook. Even then, Gerwig ultimately turns this weakness into one of the film’s most emotionally satisfying sequences.
“Lady Bird” sits at the top of an excellent year for female filmmakers - that list includes directors Dee Rees for “Mudbound,” Kathryn Bigelow for “Detroit,” Patty Jenkins for “Wonder Woman,” and Angelina Jolie for “First They Killed My Father,” not to mention how women have commanded most of the best performances of the year. It isn’t nearly enough, but hopefully it’s the start of something even bigger.
Tyler Wilson can be reached at twilson@ cdapress.com