I’ll admit that I wasn’t exactly waiting for Lady Bird with bated breath. You couldn’t quite describe me as the world’s biggest Greta Gerwig fan; I’ve seen her in about a dozen or so acting roles and have been waiting patiently for her to display a second facial expression. But I went into her directorial debut with an open mind, and am glad I did—judging by what I saw, she has a delicate hand with actors, and could have a very successful career as a director ahead of her.
At first glance, Lady Bird has the bones of a routine Bildungsroman. Saoirse Ronan, who you may remember as the luminous lead in Brooklyn a couple years ago, plays the title character. ‘Is “Lady Bird” your given name?’ someone asks her. ‘Yes. It’s a name I gave myself. It was given to me by me.’ Well, her real name is Christine McPherson, but she’ll be trying on a few personas throughout the course of the film. Who doesn’t, when they’re a senior in high school?
Christine lives in a Sacramento suburb, in one of those houses on the wrong side of the tracks—literally; there are actual train tracks. She thinks her life is painfully boring, and dreams of going to college far, far away on the exotic East Coast. Somewhere with culture, she says. We first see her hanging out with the theatre kids, and Gerwig gives her a fat best friend so we know that this isn’t exactly the ‘in’ crowd. But she’ll soon have a dalliance with the ‘cool’ kids, and realise ‘cool’ is relative.
Throughout Lady Bird, Christine will also have her first sexual experience, experiment with pot, and clash with the teachers in her Catholic school. Most of all, she’ll fight with her mother, who refuses to refer to Christine by her desired name and always seems… vaguely displeased with her choices. ‘I just want you to be the best version of yourself, honey,’ her mother says. ‘What if this is the best version of myself?’ Christine replies. Her mother has no immediate answer, and the silence speaks encyclopaedias.
Okay, you’ve seen most of these plot elements before, in countless films better and worse than Lady Bird. Gerwig doesn’t add too much new material to the standard-issue coming-of-age comedy/drama, and that’s one of the things holding her film from greatness. Another is her dialogue, too often self-consciously cutesy, sometimes mannered. The worst debit by far is the ending—the film wants to end once Christine gets to college, but Gerwig keeps it awkwardly rolling along for another ten minutes before a kind of forced catharsis ends it with a whimper.
What mitigates these weaknesses, and makes Lady Bird special, is the quality of its cast. Saoirse Ronan is one of our finest young actors, and her work here only cements this. Christine is an obvious stand-in for Greta Gerwig—it’s like when Woody Allen casts someone in the ‘Woody Allen role.’ As written, Christine could have been one of those insufferable mediocre millennials, distressed that the world isn’t giving her a smooth life. Ronan gives Christine lovely depth and nuance, eliciting genuine pathos. You can see the gears turning in her head as she tries new experiences and ways of being, keeping some traits and discarding others. You simply can’t take your eyes off her.
The rest of the cast matches the high bar Ronan sets. Lucas Hedges, fresh off his Academy Award nomination for Manchester by the Sea, seems incapable of giving a false line reading. His earnestness is infectious and endearing; I only wish he’d had more screen time. Laurie Metcalf as an actress has always managed to find the maximum combination of humour and truth in every role, and ensouls Christine’s mother beautifully. Timothée Chalamet and Tracy Letts are also superb, but at this point I’m just listing actors’ names. The point is, there’s not a single weak link in this cast; it’s one of the best of the year.
Which isn’t quite to say that the movie is one of the best of the year. It’s not—but as debuts go, Lady Bird is none too shabby. I may not rush out to see Greta Gerwig’s next starring role, but the goodwill she generates here guarantees I’ll be in line at her next directorial outing.