Light as a feather and slight as a reed, Lady Bird, the solo directorial debut of actress and screenwriter Greta Gerwig, is well suited to its title. The same can’t quite be said of the character Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan. Having pretentiously assumed that moniker at the start of her senior year of high school—her hopelessly unwhimsical given name is Christine McPherson—Lady Bird spends a fair amount of time attempting to convince people, especially her hypercritical and overworked mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), to call her by the new name. Ostentatiously bored with her hometown of Sacramento and way over the fact that she still has another year to go at her all-girls Catholic school, Lady Bird makes no secret of her disdain for most of the people and places around her. She isn’t a rebel, exactly—her grades are fine if not great, she shows little interest in politics or partying, and as senior year gets under way, she’s still a virgin. But she’s a bright, curious, questing free spirit growing up in a town she experiences as dull and stifling—which is maybe just a longer way of saying “a teenage girl.”
In content and structure, Lady Bird is recognizable as a high school comedy. There’s a devoted and dorky longtime friend (Neighbors 2’s Beanie Feldstein) who gets thrown over for a prettier, richer, and more popular girl (The Giver’s Odeya Rush). There are intense serial crushes, first on an earnest theater geek (Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges) and then on an arrogant poser who always seems to be reading the same book (Timothée Chalamet of the upcoming Call Me by Your Name). There are school plays to rehearse, dances to attend or skip, and college-application essays to write. (Lady Bird’s is vetted by her school principal, a kind but unsentimentalized nun wonderfully played by Lois Smith.) The story rhythms of Lady Bird are the rhythms of the school calendar, its beats occasionally a little too familiar. But in the mode of Diary of a Teenage Girl and The Edge of Seventeen, two other recent coming-of-age stories written and directed by women, Lady Bird finds fresh purchase in well-trodden territory by observing the human carnival from a girl’s point of view.
Among the many details that give weight and specificity to Gerwig’s portrait of middle-class American girlhood is the attention she pays to the tenuousness of such categories as “middle class.” The film is set in 2002 and 2003, just after 9/11 and a few years before the financial crash, but the McPhersons are barely holding on. Lady Bird’s passive, secretly depressed dad (magnificently underplayed by the stage actor and playwright Tracy Letts) has been laid off and can’t find new work, at one point interviewing for the same position as his own son. Her mother, a health care worker, has been forced to take on extra shifts, leaving her in a quasi-permanent bad mood. And Lady Bird’s older brother still lives at home along with his girlfriend, both of them working as cashiers in a supermarket. In a rare moment of mother-daughter accord, Lady Bird and Marion visit a succession of real-estate open houses, pretending to live in the kind of spacious, elegant home they’ll never be able to afford.
Though people in Lady Bird’s family are rarely nice to each other—she and her mother engage in bitterly protracted battles of will, and her brother and his girlfriend live to mock her lofty aspirations in sardonic near-unison, like a heavily pierced Greek chorus—it’s easy to sense an abiding warmth beneath the surface tension. Gerwig is less interested in high dramatic stakes than in the micro-observation of human behavior: the way her exasperating but endearing heroine at once begs for affection and pushes it away, for example, in a scene where she and her mother shop together for a prom dress, passive-aggressive barbs a-flyin’. The editing is fast-paced, at times to the point of glibness; Gerwig has a habit of cutting right on the punchline in a way that can leave you wishing a scene had another beat to breathe. But the cast is so uniformly excellent and the dialogue so naturalistic that no character, even the too-cool-for-school bad boy played by Chalamet, seems like a sitcom-style contrivance. Everyone shines, but the glow is especially strong in the scenes between Ronan, who has been reliably delivering impeccable performances since her big-screen debut at age 12 in Atonement, and Metcalf, an Emmy- and Tony-winning actress whom too many people still remember mainly as Roseanne’s little sister. It’s not clear how autobiographical Lady Bird is—Gerwig is from Sacramento and graduated from high school around the time the film is set—but the little slice of universe she shows us feels deeply and lovingly observed.
One of the character Lady Bird’s most refreshing qualities, rare in an adolescent heroine, is how self-confident she is, even to the point of cockiness. She’s the kind of unapologetically imperfect person who barrels forward in life, secure in the conviction that she has every right to go for what she wants, even before she’s clearly formulated just what that might be. Lady Bird’s writer-director proceeds with a similar self-assurance, but unlike her young protagonist she has both a clear vision of the result she wants and a command of the tools to achieve it. Lady Bird ends with its heroine making a small, uncharacteristically humble gesture that suggests she’s finally ready to grow up and become the woman she was meant to be. Greta Gerwig is already there.