The actress Greta Gerwig has always been somewhat inscrutable.
In her most prominent roles, where she seems to be playing some version of herself—in Frances Ha and Mistress America, which she made with her husband and fellow filmmaker Noah Baumbach, though also in Mike Mills’s delightful 20th Century Women and even her starring turn in the underrated rom-com, Maggie’s Plan—she teeters on the razor’s edge of sincerity. It’s clear Gerwig’s characters want to be taken seriously, as artists or sisters or lovers, by others; what’s unclear is whether these characters are taken seriously by themselves. The result can be called pretentiousness, itself a kind of posturing, but one Gerwig, with wide-eyed curiosity and big-heartedness, always manages to infuse with authenticity. To me, she’s often hard to like but impossible to hate.
This charming pretension is at the core of what makes Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical directorial debut, Lady Bird, tick. The titular character is a high school senior (Saoirse Ronan) from Sacramento who dreams of going where culture is: New York; L.A.; or at the very least, Connecticut or New Hampshire, “where writers live in the woods.” While her given name is Christine McPherson, she’s boldly decided to call herself “Lady Bird.” She also sports shoulder-length pinkish hair, quirky thrift-store style and an abrupt wit and easy narcissism that have become a sort of standard for a Gerwig character. You will like her immediately, and immensely.
The film traces Lady Bird’s senior year at her Catholic high school, in 2002—a time that’s far enough in the past as to be rendered specific, but still close enough to eschew the honeyed sentimentality of nostalgia. Among the requisite identity issues are tensions related to the wealth gap between her family and some of the wealthier students at school, as well as the perpetual conflict with her fastidious, if not loving mother, played with great compassion by Laurie Metcalf. Despite her mother’s admonishments, Lady Bird is dead-set on applying to a set of New York liberal arts schools, enlisting help from her recently laid-off father (Tracy Letts), a yielding man positioned between two stubborn women.
The action picks up when Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (the reliably hilarious Beanie Feldstein) decide to audition for the school’s co-ed fall musical, where she quickly falls for Danny (Lucas Hedges, of Manchester by the Sea fame), a homely, yet enthusiastic Irish Catholic from a wealthier family. In its depiction of high school theater kids, the film may call to mind another coming-of-age movie about a self-serious young artist, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore. But where Rushmore is cold, Lady Bird is all warmth. Given Lady Bird’s giddy rebellion against Catholic mores, it actually has more in common with Superstar, the frenetic feature-length adaptation of Molly Shannon’s classic Saturday Night Live sketch, where she depicted Catholic schoolgirl Mary Katherine Gallagher. While that character was certainly more unhinged, she too entertained sincere dreams of bigger things, and had trouble compartmentalizing her sexual desires (fortunately (or not), Lady Bird does not make out with a tree).
Gerwig owes a great debt here to her editor, Nick Houy. I can’t recall watching a snappier coming-of-age movie than Lady Bird. The emotional moments sneak up on you, as they do its protagonist, and pass over just as quietly. Earth-shattering arguments, like one between Lady Bird and her mother, quickly dissipate into moments of genuine, unvarnished tenderness. The pacing and direction perfectly encapsulate the solipsistic feeling of being in high school, when every little thing is the biggest deal in the entire world—until it isn’t.
But Lady Bird is mostly consistently funny, often at its protagonist’s expense. Her frequent attempts to feign coolness—first with Danny, and later, with the ever-dreamy Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a pitch-perfect parody of a highly specific high school archetype, that of the rich kid who hates his father’s money and therefore seeks authenticity in dog-eared novels, hand-rolled cigarettes and Patriot Act-era government conspiracy theories—fail miserably. Yet in typical Gerwig fashion, Ronan’s Lady Bird unleashes her pretension with a charming tenacity. It’s this sensibility, occasionally lost in her portraits of post-collegiate ennui, which becomes so profound in a high school setting. Because what is adolescence if not the dedicated posturing of wayward kids who don’t know who to be yet?
Gerwig gets this. And she wisely exploits it in the central tension of the movie—that is, Lady Bird’s relationship to her hometown, the familiar plainness of Sacramento, and her parents, versus the edgy newness of the coast and its open-minded denizens. It’s a certain striving to be a certain person without knowing who you are in the first place that is somewhat of a universal feeling amongst like-and-high-minded teenagers who grew up in places like the Midwest (as I did).
Of course, it’s an acceptance of your roots—and a rejection of childish posturing—that often allows you to eventually become the person you hope to be. In one great scene, Lady Bird hears Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” come onto the car radio, easily the most treacly of early-aughts radio staples, at odds, as Amanda Petrusich writes in The New Yorker, with the irony that began settling in after 9/11. The obdurate boy she likes says he hates it. She says she loves it.
Can you really blame her?