Movie review: ‘Lady Bird’

Saoirse Ronan shines in Greta Gerwig’s remarkable directorial debut

This image released by A24 Films shows Saoirse Ronan in a scene from "Lady Bird." The film, directed by Greta Gerwig, was named best picture at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards on Thursday, Nov. 30. (Merie Wallace/A24 via AP)

On the surface, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut “Lady Bird” looks like any other coming of age story about adolescence in California. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that “Lady Bird” is as assured a directorial debut as we’ve seen in some time. It’s an endearing and insightful look at where you are and where you want to be in life.

Gerwig, who’s writing credits include two Noah Baumbach films, “Mistress America” and “Frances Ha,” which she also starred in, brings confidence to her directorial debut. Set in Gerwig’s real-life hometown of Sacramento, California, in the early 2000s, there’s a sense that Gerwig has shared the experiences of her characters. There’s a lived in quality and familiarity within the narrative that makes everything feel genuine. And that realness comes through in the film’s tremendous performances, its sense of humor and even its period detail.

Leading the cast of terrific performances is Saoirse Ronan, who’s been consistently turning in great performances since her first Oscar nomination in “Atonement,” as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a senior in a catholic high school who’s ambitions seem all too aligned with standing out from everyone else and getting out of “the midwest of California.” And one of the ways she does that is by calling herself Lady Bird. She signs her name as Lady Bird on all documentation, forces her parents to call her that and even argues with school faculty that “Lady Bird” is her given name because she gave it to herself.

Throughout the film we get to walk steps in Lady Bird’s shoes — from school plays to boyfriends, family drama and everything in between. And we begin to see the world as she does — as a naive, ambitious and somewhat entitled teen. In spite of these qualities Lady Bird possesses, Gerwig writes her characters so well that their warmth is always bubbling up to the surface.

We care about Lady Bird, and when circumstances arise that prove Lady Bird cares too, she pulls through gracefully. There are experiences in life, by way of the early 2000s, that’ll hit you on an emotional level. They show us exactly how much has changed — in both good and bad ways — in the 15 years that have passed.

And as much as “Lady Bird” is about Lady Bird, it’s also very much about her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalfe), and their relationship. Laurie Metcalfe’s performance as Marion is the one everyone’s buzzing about. It seems like a sure-thing for at least an Oscar nomination. She is a cruel, strict but caring mother, who carries some real hate-fueled jealousy towards her wealthier neighbors. It’s a big character, and Metcalfe plays it that way. She’s the breadwinner, since her husband recently was laid off, and she’s taking care of her adopted son who recently graduated from Berkley, and his girlfriend. But there’s something about the way it’s played that feels out of line with her situation. The economic anxiety begins to teeter towards the unbelievable. A bit too much like rich people pretending to be poor, or middle class envy of the one percent.

It’s a slight, unfortunate nuisance about an otherwise wonderful film.

Lady Bird eventually comes to realize some wonderful and insightful lessons about her perspective on life. It’s how she evolves to include the perspective of others that makes her a better person.

As for Marion’s conclusion, it feels like that’s a chapter Gerwig is yet to explore in her own life or in her own writing. But that’s something to look forward to in the future, because Gerwig has really proven herself behind the camera here.