It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Lady Bird, the writing-directing debut of actress Greta Gerwig, boasts impeccable comic timing. From Baghead (my first acquaintance with her onscreen) through her increasingly involved collaborations with Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha, Mistress America), Gerwig has shown a ruthless comic intelligence, even while playing (perhaps especially while playing) daffy characters.
Lady Bird isn’t daffy at all. If anything, it’s a laser-sharp comedy about a restless teen who’s too smart for her own good: Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan). Feeling stifled at her Catholic high school in 2002 Sacramento (which she calls “the Midwest of California”), the self-nicknamed Lady Bird is—much like the sarcastic, difficult heroine of The Edge of Seventeen—trying to find herself by acting out and seeing how others respond. Her hair tinted pink, her bedroom wall adorned with hand-lettered personal statements, Lady Bird wants, above all, for everyone to notice how unhappy she is (a nun at school says she has a “performative streak”). To her mind, the only thing that would turn her life around is acceptance at a prestigious, East Coast college, but her unenthusiastic academic record makes that a long shot.
Ronan gives Lady Bird a fearlessness that is at once admirable and vulnerable; even as you cheer her commitment to doubling down on her own weirdness, you worry about the social consequences that could easily come. She finds a safety net, of sorts, when she joins the school’s drama group and finds kindred spirits (including Lucas Hedges of Manchester by the Sea). But later that aspirational side of her kicks in and she’s tempted to swim in more rarefied (but risky) social waters.
Lady Bird hits its comic stride in the scenes involving the drama club, which affectionately lampoon artistic earnestness, misplaced confidence, and adolescent awkwardness. (The musical that’s being staged, to varying degrees of success? Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along.) Gerwig and editor Nick Houy mine laughs from the cutting and the pacing as much as the performances, managing to capture the breakneck speed at which emotions turn during your teens. There are brisk little comic montages throughout, including one sequence that abruptly cuts from a kiss of betrayal to tears while listening to Dave Matthews Band to Lady Bird’s elation at finally having the cast on her arm removed. The film’s comedy fires as fast as its characters’ hormones.
It’s better to try on that overly adorned pink dress for prom and fail than not try at all.
Not that the kids are ever the butt of the joke. The gags—including an audition montage that is at turns inspiring and guffaw-inducing—never feel mean-spirited, largely because Lady Bird has a genuine love for its characters’ foibles, which it rightly regards as clumsy attempts at self-expression. In the movie’s universe, it’s better to try on that overly adorned pink dress for prom and fail than not try at all.
This isn’t how Lady Bird’s mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) sees things, which is why the two are constantly at odds. Though Lady Bird has a best friend (Beanie Feldstein) and cycles through two boyfriends (in a nice touch, their names get written on, then crossed off, her bedroom wall), the movie’s central relationship is between mother and daughter. Metcalf, known mostly for television, is a wonder as a woman who relates to her difficult child mainly via passive aggressive attempts at control. (She lets her dye her hair, but obsessively monitors the number of towels she uses.) It’s a tortured relationship, undergirded by real love, which is evidenced by how often Lady Bird mentions her mother and by the way Marion’s first expression, upon looking at her daughter, is usually a sad, exasperated smile. There’s a wonderful scene in which the two of them are bitterly arguing while shopping for dresses at a thrift store; upon coming across the perfect find, they instantly drop their bickering to ooh and aah.
That they’re in a second-hand store is key, for class issues are a crucial part of the movie. Lady Bird and her family literally live on the wrong side of the tracks (as one of her boyfriends incredulously points out). Certainly the reality that her mom works two shifts and her father (a wonderful Tracy Letts) has just lost his job is the reason she seeks a presumably affluent life on the other coast. The upper-class Sacramento neighborhood where most of her classmates live is the one place Lady Bird would like to fit in.
Lady Bird’s final section, it must be said, is surprisingly heavy on wish fulfillment. More than one string is tied up a bit too neatly, even conventionally, especially given how open to awkwardness and unease most of the film had been. But it seems silly to complain on that end, considering how strongly we’ve been rooting for its main character to succeed. And to be fair, the movie ambiguously employs another comically abrupt cut in its final moment, ultimately leaving it up to us to decide if this young woman has finally found herself, somewhere between Lady Bird and Christine.