Movies about the experience of being a teenager certainly are not new, and various versions have spanned the genres. But that unique feeling of transitioning from childhood to adulthood is universal, and no matter how many times it’s been depicted, when it’s done right, it’s downright magical.
That’s the case with Lady Bird, the solo directorial debut for actor/writer Greta Gerwig. When we meet Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), she’s entering her senior year at Catholic school in Sacramento, trying to deal with the pressures of school, hormones, and her overly critical mom, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). She dreams of going to college on the East Coast, but her poor grades and her family’s deteriorating financial situation may hold her back.
The self-nicknamed Lady Bird deals with many familiar adolescent scenarios — getting her first real boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges); wrestling between staying true to her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and fitting in with Jenna (Odeya Rush) and the rest of the popular crowd; and arguing with her mom over everything from a messy room to her college decision.
But Gerwig makes us look at each of these things through new eyes, delivering honest insight into the teenage experience like few have done before, even if she's not saying anything truly profound. This is the first time Gerwig has not starred in a film she has written, and the reason the story feels so true-to-life is likely because the Sacramento-raised filmmaker appears to have made a thinly-veiled autobiographical film.
It helps that Gerwig and editor Nick Houy cut the movie in such a way that the audience gets just enough information to understand what’s going on, but never too much to bog us down in exposition. An example comes about halfway through the film when we find out one character is hiding a significant secret. Most other films would devote the next few scenes to dissecting the revelation, but Gerwig moves on to other matters almost immediately. The secret colors the emotions in subsequent scenes, but it never dominates them, which makes its impact stronger.
The film is set in 2002 and 2003, and given the use of time-specific music, things like books on tape, and other small touches, it feels like a true period film. Gerwig uses songs like Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” and Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” to great effect, showing how music can influence multiple aspects of a teenager’s life.
Truthfully, the 23-year-old Ronan is a little old to be playing a teenager, especially coming on the heels of her magnetic adult performance in Brooklyn. But aside from that nitpick, she’s everything you’d want and more in this role. Starting with her Oscar-nominated role in Atonement, she’s always had an air of maturity, so it’s nice to see her be somewhat immature while still showing off her innate acting skills.
Gerwig has long been respected on the independent movie scene for her writing and acting. Now that she has shown she also can deliver a warm, confident, compelling movie like Lady Bird as a director, she may finally become a household name.