How it’s New York: Writer/Director Greta Gerwig is based in New York and actress Saoirse Ronan was born in the Bronx
How it’s Irish: Saoirse Ronan is Irish-American, raised in IrelandGreta Gerwig, who came up through Mumblecore movies, has established herself in recent years as a writer, bringing her distinctive voice to Frances Ha and Mistress America. For her first turn behind the camera she turns her attention to her own Sacramento adolescence that serves as the inspiration for the film.
[pullquote]Although she’s in her 20s, Ronan nails what it’s like to be a romantic, struggling narcissistic teenager. [/pullquote]
It’s circa 2002 and Saoirse Ronan plays Christine McPherson, who yearns for something bigger than her staid Catholic school youth on the wrong side of the tracks. To her, Sacramento is the “Midwest of California.” To usher in a new era, she gives herself the name “Lady Bird”. She’s a smart but underachieving senior, a sort of outsider with one best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), both surrounded by their far wealthier classmates and their stately homes. She gets along with her understanding father Larry (Tracy Letts), but is an angry jerk toward her brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), a recent college graduate.
Her deepest connection is with her patient, hardworking mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf, who starred recently on Broadway and won a Tony for her role in “A Doll’s House Part 2”), but it’s a fraught relationship. In a funny, beautifully rendered scene early on that gets at the heart of their dynamic, Lady Bird expresses her desire to go to college on the East Coast where she can, in her mind, finally be exposed to culture. Marion, who clearly loves her daughter but her palpable worry takes the shape of sharp-tongued remarks about Lady Bird’s future, tells her that with her worth ethic she won’t get in and should just “go to city college, jail and back to city college and then maybe learn to pull yourself up”. Lady Bird responds by jumping out of the car and breaking her arm. Timothée Chalamet, so good in John Patrick Shanley’s “Prodigal Son” last year, plays Lady Bird’s love interest.
Gerwig covers a lot in the movie: first love, serious financial struggles, heartbreak and the ever relatable theme of trying to make your own way. As a viewer, you’re with the captivating Ronan every step of the way, whether she’s screaming for joy after a kiss or toilet papering a nun’s car to become popular.
Although she’s in her 20s, Ronan nails what it’s like to be a romantic, struggling narcissistic teenager. It’s great to see to see the legendary Lois Smith, who adds a dose of good-natured humour and wisdom to her Sister Sarah Joan.
Letts, also a screenwriter and playwright (“August: Osage County”), is onscreen for the second time this year after The Lovers (with Debra Winger), and continues to bring a warmth and gentleness to his roles. Metcalf, as always, is terrific, capturing the love and loss that comes with being a parent.
The movie is briskly paced, clocking in at a little more than 90 minutes. At time it does feel rushed, with a fairly abrupt ending and not much screen time to explore Lady Bird’s fractious interactions with her brother. I would have also enjoyed more scenes between Ronan and Letts. Perhaps with a millennial at the helm doing a movie about her generation, the emphasis is on brevity for that audience. It’s a minor quibble for a crackling debut that should be added to the list of this year’s best films.
Lady Bird opens in theatres November 3rd.