Movie audiences have recently gotten a number of great coming-of-age stories, and now "Lady Bird" takes a place at the top of that heap, delivering an unfailingly honest, hilarious, and warm-hearted depiction of growing up in California in the early aughts. Making her solo directing debut, actor Greta Gerwig tells the story of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a Catholic high school senior in Sacramento, circa-2002.
Christine, who prefers to go by her "given name" of "Lady Bird" ("I gave it to myself, it was given to me by me"), lives in a modest home with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf); her recently laid-off father (Tracy Letts); and her brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), and his girlfriend, Shelly (Marielle Scott). It's the kind of house her parents had always assumed they'd upgrade at some point, but have never quite been able to afford. Lady Bird can't help but look at her classmates' mini-mansions with envious eyes, as her family's financial strain has subtly colored the way she views the rest of the world.
As high school comes to an end, Lady Bird is faced with choosing a college and deciding what she wants to do with her future. She's unsure what that entails, but positive it requires getting as far from her hometown as possible. Over the course of the year, Lady Bird has experiences that check all the boxes we expect from a teen film: prom night, the first fumbling explorations of sex, growing apart from her best friend (the fantastic Beanie Feldstein) to try her hand at hanging with a cooler crowd.
She even finds two potential love interests: enthusiastic, sensitive theater kid Danny (Lucas Hedges), and the too-cool-for-school bad boy Kyle (a pitch-perfect TimothéeChalamet). Despite their familiarity, these situations are imbued with enough truth that they never feel less than achingly real.
At the true heart of the film is the prickly relationship between Lady Bird and Marion, both strong-willed, stubborn women who can't help but be at odds with one another. As you might expect from an actor-turned-director, Gerwig gets some fantastic performances from her cast. Ronan demonstrates once again that there's nothing she can't do, and she gives Lady Bird's clumsy attempts at expressing herself an endearing quality no matter how selfish she's being. Her mother is every bit as complicated, and Metcalf is extraordinary in the role.
As a writer and director, Gerwig has a clear affection for her characters, investing them with a rich inner life. Her script is filled with hilarious, sharply-written, and carefully observed details -- she even finds an unexpected poignancy in Dave Matthews Band's "Crash Into Me."
Capturing the feeling of being desperate to leave home and get on with "real" life, "Lady Bird" is both a delightful portrait of youth and a loving tribute to Sacramento (like her main character, Gerwig grew up and went to a Catholic high school in California's capital city). Smart, funny, and deeply heartfelt, it's one of my favorite films of the year.