Greta Gerwig soars with directorial debut “Lady Bird”

By Brendan Nagle

Christine McPherson is brimming with contradiction. As a senior at an all-girls Catholic school in Sacramento, California, Christine (Saoirse Ronan) is a youthful whirlwind of conflicting characteristics: deep compassion and stubborn selfishness, reckless individuality and suppressive insecurity. In other words, she is not yet fully developed. She wants so desperately to be something, but she has not yet figured out what that something is. Christine, who prefers to go by her “given” name, Lady Bird (“given to me, by me,” she says), is the protagonist of the eponymous “Lady Bird,” the  solo directorial debut of Greta Gerwig. Gerwig was anointed the Mumblecore Queen after coming to national prominence acting and writing in a series of mid-2000’s films by the likes of Joe Swanberg and the Duplass Brothers.

More recently, you may be familiar with her collaborations with director Noah Baumbach: she starred in and co-wrote “Frances Ha” and “Mistress of America.” “Lady Bird” finds Gerwig branching out on her own for the first time — not only is it her solo directorial debut, but also her first solo writing credit — and is without a doubt the best work of her career.

The film, set mostly during the 2002-2003 school year, follows Christine all the way from the beginning of her senior year through the start of her first semester in college. This is quite a bit of time to cover for a movie that runs only 93 minutes, but Gerwig is succinct and efficient with her filmmaking. She and editor Nick Houy leave us with little extraneous information; every detail is important.

Christine feels trapped by her environment. Sacramento represents the shackles of her adolescence. She feels like her life is being controlled by everyone and everything, from her Catholic high school where skirts must reach below the knees, to her mother (played by the terrific Laurie Metcalf) who cruelly chastises her for every misstep: bad grades, dirty rooms, too many servings of pasta. And more than anything else, Sacramento reminds her of her own inescapable poverty. She wishes she lived in the beautiful blue mansion up the street. She wants more than her life can give her, and for that she harbors a deep resentment. Christine aches to go to school on the East Coast, to be “where culture is, like New York — or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire where writers live in the woods.” But her Romantic coastal dreams are shot down by her mother. Even if they could afford those schools, she could never get in. Just as Christine resents her poverty, her mother Marion feels that Christine is ungrateful for her opportunities.

“Lady Bird” is loaded with confused teens: beyond Christine there is her too-good-to-be-true first love Danny (Lucas Hedges), who is struggling with a deep secret, and her next romantic interest Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a pretentious pseudo-anarchist grasping for meaning in the wake of his father’s terminal illness.  Even the adults have problems: Marion, a nurse working double-shifts at the psychiatric ward, often takes her frustration out on Christine. Her husband Larry (Tracy Letts), an out of work computer technician, retreats inward. Instead of projecting his failures on others he puts it all on himself, struggling to deal with the depression that came with realizing that his life did not turn out how he imagined it would. Despite any flaws, however, they are loving parents, and they care deeply about Christine’s well-being. We can see this even if Christine does not immediately realize it. At one point Danny describes Marion as “warm, but also kind of scary.” This duality, not unlike Christine’s contradictions, is emblematic of Gerwig’s character treatment.

Gerwig treats all of her characters with a remarkable compassion: Christine, Marion, Larry, Danny, Kyle, even the pastor who directs the school’s plays. No one is simply what they seem on the surface. Credit also must go to the actors who embody these characters, all of whom are excellent. Ronan in particular shines above the rest. The entire movie hinges on her performance, on making the audience identify with Christine despite major character flaws, and she nails it. She is endearing all the way.

Among other things, “Lady Bird” is a nostalgic love letter to Gerwig’s hometown. She paints the city with such a loving touch, sprinkling beautiful shots of it throughout: tree-lined suburban streets, the Sacramento River, Tower Bridge, all bathed in lustrous golden hour light. Despite its confinement, Christine, and Gerwig, have developed a profound appreciation and love for Sacramento. New York may be the answer to their personality crisis, but Sacramento will always be their home.

Greta Gerwig’s debut feature is a triumph, a warm and honest portrayal of youth that’s sure to conjure laughter and tears in equal measure.

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