If adolescence can be defined as the state of wanting to be anywhere but here, then Sacramento in “Lady Bird” is probably the Platonic ideal of “here.” The film presents the city as a place to get away from, but it also has the fond clarity of someone coming home, in this case the actress, writer, and Sacramento native Greta Gerwig, making her feature directing debut.
As debuts go, “Lady Bird” is as strong as they get: funny, ferocious, and wise. It does, however, drape its restless energy and witty observations atop an overfamiliar framework of coming-of-age movies. The fights with mom, the old friend thrown over for a popular new crowd, the crushes, the humblings, the experimentation with sex and intoxication, the weak but loving dad, the teacher who gets it — it’s all here.
But so is Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement,” “Brooklyn”) as the fuming, vibrant teenage heroine, and her presence immediately ups the film’s game. The character’s family calls her Christine but she has reinvented herself as “Lady Bird,” which rings with all the elegance and freedom she doesn’t yet have. The movie hardly glamorizes Lady Bird — with her lank hair and age-appropriate acne, she’s deglamorized if anything — but Ronan plays her with the glorious impatience of a young woman who knows she’s beautiful and can’t wait for the world to catch up.
Gerwig’s strictly behind-the-camera contributions include a steady, unshowy filmmaking sensibility, a semi-autobiographical script that crackles with humor and appalled empathy, and a nose for casting that feels like an actress returning favors. She gives the role of Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, to the great Laurie Metcalf, who responds with a performance of love and bile that will ring bells for anyone who has had to share a house with the black hole of self-absorption known as a teenager. Marion and Lady Bird are like two warring nation-states, neither of whom play entirely fair.
A brainy but unnoticed rebel misfit at a Sacramento Catholic school, Lady Bird has hit senior year intent on finding herself and getting the hell out of Dodge. She tries out for the school musical (Sondheim, of course; “Merrily We Roll Along,” more deliciously) with the misplaced confidence of a junior-league LuPone. She falls madly in love with the resident theater boy (Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea”) while also being drawn to a moody, existential rich kid (Timothée Chalamet, hilarious) who’s so hip he’s inert.
The rich kid offers the heroine entrée into a world that’s literally across the tracks from the lower-middle-class nowhere in which Lady Bird has grown up. Part of her reinvention involves strutting her way into the circle of the Haves by telling a few lies, jettisoning a childhood friend (Beanie Feldstein), and sucking up to an idle, shallow Queen Bee (Odeya Rush). Too smart to be fooled by anyone for too long, Lady Bird is also headstrong enough to fool herself for at least a while.
Among its other pleasures, “Lady Bird” is one of the few movies in its genre to acridly note divisions of wealth and class. The mother works long hours as a nurse, the father (playwright Tracy Letts) has been laid off from his computer programming job and can’t find work, and the daughter is expected to go to a state college because it’s what the family can afford. In secret she fires off applications to tony East Coast institutions, the envelopes practically smoking with ambition.
The film is, above all, a celebration of being young, ardent, and impossible, and while Lady Bird has her defenders (including one elderly nun played with verve by Lois Smith), the heart of the movie is in the pitched battles with her mother. Both women are stubborn, both say things they shouldn’t, both have just about had enough. Gerwig waits and watches for the tectonic plates of this primal relationship to shift and for the two to see each other as human again. She has faith it will — someday — possibly because she knows it did.
“Lady Bird” is being hailed in some quarters as a work of absolute perfection and originality, which it’s not; some minor adjustments of expectations may be necessary. But if Gerwig’s movie doesn’t make you forget “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” (2015), “An Education” (2009), or other high-water entries in this genre, neither does it stand apart from them. And in Ronan’s marvelous performance, tough and transparent at the same time, we can see the blurred outlines of the equally assured filmmaker behind her. The movie’s a gift from one woman to another through the girl they now share.
Written and directed by Greta Gerwig. Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts. At Kendall Square. 93 minutes. R (language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity, teenage partying).
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