“I have to get out of Sacramento,” groans capricious teen Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who goes by the flamboyant moniker ‘Lady Bird’, much to the chagrin of her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Infusing her film with the rosy glow of nostalgia, writer/director Greta Gerwig muses on her birthplace and teenage temperament in a semi-autobiographical, sparklingly funny coming-of-age comedy, which has been nominated for a quintet of Oscars.
Set in 2002 and conceived to feel like a memory, Gerwig’s first film as solo director (she co-directed the 2008 feature Nights and Weekends with Joe Swanberg) scampers through its protagonist’s final, tumultuous year in high school, taking us right up to the blurry beginnings of her college days.
Fond of describing herself as a girl from the “wrong side of the tracks” – something an amused suitor (played by Lucas Hedges) observes to be quite literally true – Lady Bird attends an all-girls Catholic school that’s free from the humourless, disciplinarian stereotypes audiences are accustomed to seeing. Sensitive school musical director Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley Henderson) struggles to keep his depression in check and isn’t afraid to express himself artistically, while our protagonist enjoys an understanding with the affable Sister Sarah Joan (played by Lois Smith with a twinkle in her eye).
Lady Bird is a girl with big dreams and so-so talents, but no shortage of ideas or enthusiasm. Her OTT audition for the school musical renders those watching dumbstruck; she gets in anyway, but then so does everyone else. Romances play out with more than a hint of farce (including with Timothée Chalamet’s morose rocker, with whom Ronan enjoys many a hilariously cringe-worthy scene). Luckily, her bond with adorable best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), which also has its ups and downs, is made of more robust stuff.
At this nimbly directed film’s core is a fractious but loving mother-daughter relationship that has a whiplash-inducing ability to ricochet from tenderness to vitriol. It’s summed up by an opening sequence that sees the pair “jolly up” a road-trip around colleges by listening to the audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath. As the sombre tome draws to a close, they are overcome in a fleeting moment of emotional synchronicity that instantly explodes into the fireworks of a feud, before an exasperated Lady Bird hurls herself out of the moving car.
While the 17-year-old has all the provocation of a hormonal youth, the perennially disapproving, stressed-out Marion (whose acts of kindness towards others are plentiful, and whose affection for Lady Bird is glaringly apparent) simply can’t hold her nagging tongue, ruining many a happy moment for her daughter. Ronan and Metcalf inhabit these flawed characters so beautifully that you’ll weep for every one of their botched attempts at bonding and reconciliation, but leave the cinema hopeful that their love will ultimately withstand the blows.
Scripted by Gerwig with a deft balance of laudable wit and authentic angst, the film brilliantly depicts the adolescent tendency to rail against everything and anything, and it’s remarkable how heartfelt each and every moment feels, without the film once descending into sentimentality. Both that and Gerwig’s refusal to tie things up in a neat movie bow are a satisfying nod to its true-life origins. This is a loveable, colourful and largely convention-defying portrait of an endearing eccentric who, despite her protestations, holds her hometown dearer than she realises.