Lady Bird, the new movie written and directed by Greta Gerwig, opens peacefully: a mother and daughter asleep in a motel bed, facing each other, tired from college visits. It’s an unspoken truce—and it couldn’t be more deceptive. Soon, the mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), is doing that thing she does, tidying up after herself when maybe she doesn’t need to. And soon, her daughter, Christine—who’d prefer that you call her Lady Bird—is doing the thing she does, which is to remind her mother of the things one doesn’t have to do (like make the motel bed) or fret over (like the fact Lady Bird goes by “Lady Bird”). Soon, they’re back on the road, arguing over the things Marion should actually be worrying about, like the fact Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) plans to go to college out of state—how are they going to pay for that?—and the fact she doesn’t really have the grades, to say nothing of the extracurriculars, to pull this off. “You’re not even worth in-state tuition, Christine,” says Marion, venomously. Cut to: Lady Bird jumping out of their speeding car. Cut to: a pink cast on Lady Bird’s arm and a message scribbled in emphatic permanent ink: FUCK YOU, MOM.
Welcome to the McPherson clan. Welcome, specifically, to the world of Lady Bird McPherson, a high school senior who doesn’t entirely know what she wants but who knows—fiercely and without hesitation—that she wants. Lady Bird is a student at Immaculate Heart, a Catholic school in Sacramento, in 2002. In the background of her last year at home sit the aftermath of 9/11 and the brewing, but still seemingly distant, war in Iraq. In the foreground, there’s the usual: boys, best friends, arguments with mom, financial stress, college applications, “What do I want to do with my life?” anxieties, and so on.
It’s the usual coming-of-age stuff. The movie’s got a spunky semi-outcast of a heroine in Lady Bird, who sacrilegiously sneaks away with her best friend between classes to eat Communion wafers and talk about using shower heads to masturbate, and who’s full of clever one-liners like, “The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome.” She’s an insightful quipmaster à la teen heroines like Juno, Laney Boggs, the women of Ghost World, and others—even with variation, it’s a familiar archetype. On those terms, Lady Bird would appear to be pretty familiar, genre-wise. Gerwig’s movie tracks all the well-mined ups and downs of the senior year: falling for a boy, falling for another boy, college rejection notices, prom, the first time, and the rest—Gerwig hasn’t set out to reinvent the wheel.
Instead, she has set out to reimagine it, to revitalize it from inside out. It’ll be no surprise to anyone who’s seen the movie that like Lady Bird, Gerwig—who’s making her solo directing debut here—also grew up in Sacramento and went to a Catholic school at around the same time as Lady Bird. You can imagine that Gerwig and her heroine have similar fates. In the unwritten sequel to Lady Bird, Lady Bird has undoubtedly grown up to be as fiercely idiosyncratic, and hopefully just as successful, as the woman who dreamed her up.
But the beauty of Lady Bird isn’t in how well Gerwig has made a movie about herself: It’s in how thoroughly and adventurously she’s imagined the inner life, anxieties, joys, insecurities, and everyday behaviors of other people. Lady Bird is full of characters who, like our heroine, just want the best for themselves, and for others. The basic story is that of Lady Bird’s senior year, starting with what happens when, at the encouragement of her school principal (a well-humored nun played by Lois Smith), Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (the extraordinary Beanie Feldstein) audition for the school play. It’s the first step to Lady Bird realizing what she’ll have to do to become the person she wants to be. She wants, above all, to escape Sacramento—and the whole of California, really. The movie opens with an epigraph by way of Joan Didion, from a 1979 Michiko Kakutani profile of the author in The New York Times: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Sounds boring—but also, somehow, tempting.
In the meantime, she dates, chills with her best friend, tries punching above her weight class on the social ladder (and loses), argues with her parents, refuses to fold her clothes. It’s harrowing, in part, because Ronan is so good in the role. Smart, acned, defensive, at times childish but never childlike, Ronan gives us a hero we can love despite her faults. She’s in good company. The performances, top to bottom, are breathtaking. There’s a murderer’s row of established older players (Metcalf, Smith, Tracy Letts, Stephen McKinley Henderson) sharing every image with Ronan, Feldstein, and others of the best young actors working today. It’s because of them, abetted by Gerwig’s graceful script, that you immediately sense a tension in the movie between the people who want more than they have, like Lady Bird, and the people who expected more from what they’ve already got, like her mother. It’s the crux of all the movie’s drama. Marion McPherson, as astonishingly played by Metcalf, lets her worries about paying the bills and raising her daughter to be a responsible young woman slip into what comes off as jaded passive-aggression. In Gerwig’s hands, it’s more complicated than that—just as Lady Bird’s father, played by Tracy Letts, is a depressive whose moods are linked to, but bigger than, a sense of financial failure.
That’s part of it, of course, but only part. No character here is as flat as their logline. After her boyfriend, Danny (Lucas Hedges), betrays her, we learn the story of his own shame; through the eyes of Lady Bird, who understands shame firsthand as a poor kid surrounded by well-off families, it becomes an occasion for forgiveness. At another moment, we see Lady Bird’s parents react to their daughter telling people she’s from “the wrong side of the tracks”—a self-effacing way of trying to make sense of how she fits in, but a dagger to the heart of her hardworking parents. The movie is rife with human error.
Another boy, a cigarette-smoking rich kid named Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), is a walking ball of irony: a rich kid who claims to hate money, a popular kid who nevertheless forgoes socializing at parties to read Howard Zinn and smoke hand-rolled cigarettes. But even he’s got pain he’s merely masking over.
What emerges from all of this isn’t merely a cornucopia of painful, trite backstories, which Lady Bird might easily have become. But this movie is too funny, and too light on its feet, to have it so easy. The ironies of adolescence are in fact one of the central threads here, starting with the fact that while Lady Bird claims to hate Sacramento, Gerwig has made the movie that’d make Lady Bird miss it. It’s not a highlight reel—the movie is full of embarrassment. But it’s as if Gerwig has chosen to emphasize the parts of her experience Lady Bird will most want to remember. The scenes with the theater kids alone, as they prepare for the school play, are a complete delight: You see Lady Bird and her peers acting out, being who they want to be, without shame or compromise. Shame is what comes later, when Marion frets over the grocery bill or Lady Bird, in a particularly dumb move, lies about her address to impress a rich friend (who, mortifyingly, shows up at the mini-mansion Lady Bird claims is her house).
Gerwig has instilled the movie with a constant sense of financial anxiety, just as she did in Frances Ha and Mistress America, her collaborations with Noah Baumbach. But the real conflict in Lady Bird isn’t one of money, per sé. It’s the idea that dreams, and the future, are by definition beyond reach. And sometimes beyond our means. The pain, which is also the joy, of Lady Bird is that its characters confront this over and over. It’s built into the movie’s bones. Gerwig makes us fly through the movie, packing an entire TV season’s worth of material into under two hours, such that Lady Bird’s aspirations are frequently thrown into conflict with her circumstances. It’s energizing: the movie achieves liftoff and never looks back. Gerwig’s direction—her sense of movement, performance, detail, comic timing—is intimidatingly nimble. But nothing is more humbling than her boundless imaginative sympathy, and her ability to translate that feeling to the screen with such joy.
Lady Bird wants and wants, and we grow to want—for her, and ourselves—right alongside her. Will I ever forgive the movie for getting Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” re-stuck in my head after so many years of denial over my love for that song, or for reminding me, in a very pointed way, of what it was like to feel like a failure and a dweeb in high school who just wanted to escape? Nope! Too real—which is a sign, above all, that the movie is onto something. When it ended, I relished the feeling that I had seen someone grow up before my eyes. Most of all, though, I simply wanted to keep watching.