Lady Bird is a soothing balm. Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is like re-reading an old journal entry through a lens of simultaneous criticism and forgiveness, with an outpouring of love and the benefit of distance. It is a female coming-of-age story that is both nostalgic and unflinching, and it will ensnare you deeply in its grasp.
The astonishingly good Saoirse Ronan leaves her proper Brooklyn protagonist Eilis behind as Christine McPherson, a 17-year-old living in Sacramento with her parents, her brother, and her brother’s girlfriend in 2002. The film begins with the start of her senior year, that strange time when you’re immensely ready to leave your past behind but the adult world hasn’t really started yet. That sense of displacement runs through Christine, who has named herself “Lady Bird” and who is the kind of teenage girl who throws herself out of a moving car during a fight with her mother. She is tempestuous and dramatic, but how do you dislike someone whose feelings run so close to the surface, and who lives so in tune with them?
Lady Bird is a combination of contradictions: She’s often sarcastic and disaffected, but she throws herself whole-heartedly into the goofy sincerity of high school theater. She dresses like a punk, with dyed-pink hair and heavy black boots, but she has to ask her brother who Jim Morrison was. And although she isn’t a particularly good student—at no point do we see her do homework—she has aspirations of being one, like thinking she should be on the competitive math team even though she’s mostly terrible at it. Her ultimate goal is to get out of Sacramento and move to the East Coast for college, but her romantic streak won’t allow her to just come out and say that plainly. Instead, she has to grandiosely tell her mother, the wholly practical Marion (Laurie Metcalf), “I want to go where culture is”—no matter the cost, financial or emotional.
So much of Lady Bird focuses on the shifting relationships and evolving dynamics that are part of growing up, and Gerwig does a phenomenal job building characters that feel familiar without being clichéd. Lady Bird tries on identities like she rifles through a stack of dresses at the local thrift store; she goes from grungy kid to theater nerd to faux rich girl to, finally, the most honest version of herself in the span of one year. Her experiences, from first love to first major parental fight to first college mistake, are all ones we’ve lived through, and the insight and honesty with which Gerwig navigates Lady Bird through those moments is deeply felt.
The supporting cast is stellar here, all bouncing off Ronan in variously impactful ways: Beanie Feldstein is lovely as Julie, Lady Bird’s best friend who gets cast aside when Christine decides she’d rather hang out with the rich kids; Lucas Hedges is deeply sympathetic as Danny, Lady Bird’s first boyfriend who “respects [her] too much” to touch her breasts; and Tracy Letts is charming as Lady Bird’s father Larry, struggling with his own sense of self as he tries to support the daughter he knows wants so much more.
And then there is Metcalf, who throws herself into the Oscars race with this performance. The push-pull of the mother-daughter dynamic in Lady Bird is almost too real; so much of the cutting asides and brutal truths that Marion and Lady Bird fling at each other felt like verbatim fights from my own adolescence. Larry gently tells Lady Bird that she and her mother both have strong personalities, but what they also have is the ability to deeply wound and only half-heal each other. Those are double-sided powers that only a mother and daughter share, and as we observe Lady Bird grow up—forced into an awareness that her parents exist outside of her—it’s with a remembrance of who we were back then, too.
Lady Bird isn’t perfect, and no one that age ever is. She has moments of shocking selfishness. She often says inappropriate things from a place of honesty rather than a place of consideration for how they will affect the listener. But she can also be inviting and kind, supportive and loving, and desperate for the acceptance that only a parent can provide. When she asks her mother whether Marion likes her, and Marion responds that she loves her, you understand what Lady Bird is truly asking—and why her mother’s answer hurts so much.
In her directorial debut, Gerwig has crafted a film that pulls together experiences that are both undeniably universal (the desire to attend your high school prom, no matter how hackneyed it may seem) and supremely specific (weeping to the Dave Matthews Band song “Crash,” which I can say from firsthand knowledge was a very essential part of female adolescence in the early ’00s), and which tackles issues of youth, class, and sex for which there are no easy answers. Lady Bird is one of the best of the year.