Greta Gerwig had a big challenge ahead of her for her directorial debut; how do you make a genre like “coming of age” refreshing? Gerwig’s response was to imbue it with what she learned in her time working with Noah Baumbach: honesty. Not a single moment in this film feels contrived or fake.
It is 2002 and Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is sick of living in Sacramento. She wants to go to college where all the artists are — on the East Coast — and to escape from her overbearing mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). First, she has to discover herself and realize the entire world does not revolve around her.
The film shows a lot of care for its craft as even the smallest details are meticulous and well-thought-out. There are small things like the bracelets and necklaces Lady Bird and her friends wear to their Catholic high school. The costuming is completely appropriate for the time period and adds to the film’s vivid sense of place.
Lady Bird also behaves in the way that a girl her age would. One would guess that is because she does not have much of an idea as to who she is, so she begins to test out the different versions of herself she aspires to be.
We see her strike a friendship with one of the popular girls in school. We see her lie about where she lives. The underlying reason for all of this is that she is not very happy with who she is, even giving herself the name “Lady Bird” because she does not like her name, Christine. She slowly begins to break out of her narcissistic mold when she realizes that her parents have lives of their own, that there might be more to theater nerd Danny (Lucas Hedges) and how her actions impact her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein).
The film devotes a lot of time to slowly developing Lady Bird so by the time the audience sees her in college, it is lovely even if she still is not the “best version” of herself. She still shows some signs of her former self, but she has grown a lot. The viewer does not get the full brunt of her character development until her last monologue.
Ronan proves why she’s deserving of her title as a two-time Oscar nominated actress by pulling off the tricky feat of making Lady Bird sympathetic. Yes, she’s selfish and narcissistic, but she is also capable of great empathy, and there’s an innocence behind all the bluster. Metcalf gives a raw performance during one of the most moving scenes of the film, in which her character slowly processes that her daughter is leaving. Tracy Letts as Larry McPherson is also enjoyable as Lady Bird’s understanding but tired father, and Lois Smith brings some delightful humor to Sister Sarah Joan.
The film tackles a common topic in coming-of-age films—that not everyone is who they appear to be; there is more to the mean girl at school, the mysterious outsider, or the priest. Writer-director Gerwig handles the film beautifully, and although Lady Bird has modest ambitions, it soars.