A nurse (Laurie Metcalf) and her 17-year-old daughter (Saoirse Ronan) cruise down a highway. They’re listening to an audiobook reciting the closing passage from “The Grapes of Wrath,” tears trickling from their eyes in unison. It’s like “Sleepless in Seattle,” when Meg Ryan and Rosie O’Donnell sob as they watch “An Affair to Remember,” except here the sentiment is short-lived.
As quickly as the Steinbeck novel ends, attention shifts to the girl’s desire to flee California for an East Coast college. The mood drops. An argument ― clearly one they’ve had before ― breaks out. “The way you work, or the way you don’t work, you’re not even worth state tuition,” the mother barks. Her daughter yanks the car door open and threatens to hurl herself out of it. The spell is severed. The waterworks have dried. They resume their natural roles: testy teenager and pinched parent.
This exchange is the perfect introduction to “Lady Bird,” the solo directorial debut from Greta Gerwig, high priestess of staccato speech and translucent soul-searching relative to both Millennials and Gen Xers. (Gerwig’s first directing project was the 2008 mumblecore drama “Nights and Weekends,” made with Joe Swanberg.) Across a dulcet 93 minutes, “Lady Bird” ― a movie you’ll wish existed when you were a teen ― captures the ever-ebbing and ever-flowing current that is maturity. An adolescent thinks she’s mastered it all; an adult realizes maybe she still hasn’t. Residing under the same middle-class roof, where one worries about schoolyard popularity and the other frets over hefty grocery bills, they foster a familiar acrimony that’s as fleeting as it is forceful. They just can’t resist giving each other a hard time.
Indeed, watching “Lady Bird” substitutes as an overdue therapy session. Whether you identify with the mother (named Marion), the daughter (Christine, who asks to be called Lady Bird) or both, the same notion reveals itself: You don’t get everything right, no matter how hard you try ― in fact, maybe you don’t even try that hard at all.
Gerwig, who set the movie in 2003, one year after her own high school graduation, when Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” hit its nostalgic peak, has a flair for the way little moments bleed into major episodes. Everything in these characters’ orbits lands with high impact, for better and worse. Blissfully, Gerwig’s script, originally titled “Mothers and Daughters,” is funny and perceptive enough to avoid the coming-of-age genre’s clichés.
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There are two things I love most about “Lady Bird.” First is the cast. Ronan and Metcalf capture an affectionate rancor without the twee inflections that make far too many films about teenagers seem precocious or idealistic. Marion and Lady Bird are hard to live with, both operating in states of infinite disenchantment. The latter wants to be a rebel ― “I think we’re done with the learning part of high school,” she announces ― but can’t quite nail how, or why; Mom doesn’t understand how Lady Bird became such an ungrateful snob.
And the folks who drift through their lives during those final months before college are like well-sought signatures in a yearbook worth keeping. Playing Lady Bird’s love interests, two of our most promising young actors show up: “Manchester by the Sea” breakout Lucas Hedges as the tender star in the school’s production of “Merrily We Roll Along,” and “Call Me by Your Name” beacon Timothée Chalamet as a too-cool guitarist embodying every pretentious-male-brat tic. Beanie Feldstein portrays Lady Bird’s amiable but self-conscious BFF, landing a line worth a pond of tears: “Some people aren’t built happy, you know?” And, solid as ever, Tracy Letts is on hand as Lady Bird’s out-of-work father, Stephen McKinley Henderson as her patient drama teacher and Lois Smith as the benevolent nun employed as her Catholic campus’ principal.
The second hallmark of the film that got me will probably spark fewer conversations than the mother-daughter dynamics and pre-collegiate unease. “Lady Bird” has a keen eye for class dynamics, particularly as they relate to the adolescent experience, when everyone litigates the quality of others’ material possessions. Lady Bird, who lives in a modest home on what she calls “the wrong side of the tracks,” envies the mansions that belong to her wealthier classmates ― so much so that she sometimes fibs about her address. As hard as Lady Bird’s parents try, their income can’t stack up against Sacramento’s moneyed tract. Like many blue-collar kids who aren’t categorically poor, she is still too young to appreciate that struggle in full. Such helplessness piles onto the festering identity issues that accompany puberty and spill into adulthood. Sometimes, to cheer themselves up, Marion and Lady Bird tour palatial open houses, pretending they can afford the prices. It’s their “favorite Sunday activity.”
Gerwig shows excellent command as a director. She’s crafted a film not about the messy melodrama of youth but about the measurable melancholy of an age when we are blind to our own limitations. It’s a perfect storm of innocence lost, from hoarding Communion wafers at school and debating the quality of clove cigarettes to virginal trysts and incessant criticism from peers and parents alike.
I will say this, however: I’m curious to see if Gerwig can someday depart from the semi-autobiographical mode that echoes her early collaborations with Noah Baumbach, namely the career-defining “Frances Ha.” As a whole, “Lady Bird” can feel somewhat incomplete. However lovely it may be scene to scene, there’s a rambling quality, as if Gerwig condensed a longer script into a greatest-hits medley. Thankfully, that doesn’t make the movie less affecting, especially for those familiar with Gerwig’s sensibilities. Ronan, fantastic as ever, is very much her avatar, and it’s hard not to buy into the bittersweet regret that exists between Lady Bird and her mother, whose sour postures about life’s circumstances drive an unnecessary wedge between them.
The final chapter, set in New York, acts as an epilogue ― a bridge, even, between Lady Bird’s past and future, when she is suddenly on her own and finally able to start processing the rearview mirror of her budding history. Independence changes her perspective. Everything she thought she knew about her family now seems ephemeral. Why’d she have to be so irascible in the first place? It’s there that “Lady Bird” gets its wings: soaring with the hopefulness of a thousand unwritten possibilities.
“Lady Bird” opens in select theaters on Nov. 3. It expands to additional cities throughout the month.