Lady Bird marks Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut as she paints a hilarious semi-autobiographical portrait of a naively selfish youth growing up in the early aughts. Saoirse Ronan plays Christine McPherson, known better by the name she gave to herself: Lady Bird. Lady Bird is a high school senior with lofty goals – she wants to go to college in New York, far away from her humble Sacramento home. Problem is, her family isn’t so well off and college in New York isn’t cheap. Her hard-working blue-collar dad (Tracy Letts) is without a job and her mother (Laura Metcalf) works numerous doubles as a nurse just to make ends meet.
Lady Bird’s mother would prefer for her to attend college somewhere much closer to home, and more importantly, much cheaper. This proves to be the main point of contention between Lady Bird and her mother. The film opens with the pair driving home from visiting a college. After a quaint listening of the Grapes of Wrath on tape, the pair begin to argue over which college Lady Bird will attend. The argument turns heated, and Lady Bird throws herself from a moving car in as an act of defiance, breaking her arm in the process.
This marks the first of many instances of Lady Bird’s self-applied blinders. No matter what others around her are going through, Lady Bird’s are the most tragic or the most important. Throughout the film, Gerwig displays interesting side stories orbiting around Lady Bird’s plight. A depressed father, a suicidal priest, a best friend dealing with body issues, a catholic teen struggling to come out as gay to his parents, and a girl surviving domestic abuse all collide with Lady Bird’s story in some way. It’s interesting that Gerwig chose to populate the film with side stories that could potentially be more interesting, as this risks deemphasizing the main plot. Luckily, this doesn’t happen, as Gerwig uses these side stories as a way of further examining Lady Bird’s youthful selfishness as she chooses to remain oblivious to these problems.
Lady Bird could easily be an unsympathetic character, but thanks to a breakout performance from Ronan, she’s anything but. Lady Bird is quirky and hilarious, oozing with charm and charisma. Lady Bird never comes across as a bad person, simply a naive one, wrapped up in her own feelings of inadequacy and rebelliousness. With that naivety comes multiple “first times.” Over the course of the film, we experience Lady Bird’s first kiss, her first boyfriend, losing her virginity, and learning how to drive. Each of these comes with a different reaction from Lady Bird once she’s free to express herself alone – from joyous screams to tearful disappointment. Ronan absolutely crushes it here.
Laura Metcalf gives a standout and powerful performance as Lady Bird’s mother. Constantly coming to verbal blows with Lady Bird, Metcalf is stern, mean, and as Danny (Lucas Hedges) describes her, “warm and scary.” Constantly having to be “the bad parent,” she continuously tries to convince Lady Bird of the strain she’s putting on everyone. Lady Bird, unsurprisingly, is having none of it. It isn’t all combative, however, as the pair share quite a few tender moments together. Their complicated and messy relationship lead to all the big emotional beats feeling much more emotionally effective.
Lucas Hedges is subdued with an awkward charm as Danny, the aforementioned teen struggling with his sexuality. The dynamic he has with Lady Bird is sweet, and the two prove to be an entertaining pair on screen. This is contrasted with Timothee Chalamet’s Kyle, a pretentious and privileged “bad boy” which Lady Bird dates as a last ditch effort in a moment of rebellion.
As a first-time director, Gerwig exhibits her talents masterfully. As well as directing the film, she penned the script. She has an extreme control of the film’s tone, deftly jumping from heartbreak to hilarity at a moment’s notice. She brings a refreshingly new perspective on the well-worn coming-of-age story, detailing the story of a selfish kid on the cusp of adulthood. This isn’t the story of a kid learning to be selfless, but one of a kid learning to come to terms with her own selfishness. While Lady Bird may not be able to undo the ties she cut or the people she hurt, she can make amends. She can grow up.