Greta Gerwig has officially been a film director previously, sharing that role with indie film stalwart Joe Swanberg on the 2008 feature Nights and Weekends. Her writing credits are more extensive, ranging from her breakthrough in the low-key breakthrough Hannah Takes the Stairs (directed by Swanberg) through to fruitful collaborations with director Noah Baumbach. Hell, Gerwig’s IMDb page even lists her as a contributing writer on the infamous, aborted How I Met Your Mother spinoff in which she starred. So when Gerwig’s Lady Bird is positioned as a directorial debut, it’s somewhat technically accurate, but also highly misleading. Lady Bird is only the latest evidence in the compelling argument that Gerwig is a brilliant filmmaker. The real difference is that Lady Bird is so good, it becomes the equivalent of the smoking gun in this particular case.
The new film follows roughly a year in the life of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior in Sacramento, beginning in 2002. Lady Bird attends a Catholic private school, straining the bank account of her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts, both stellar), but they insist because of the violence her older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) witnessed at the public high school. As is common with individuals on the verge of adulthood, Lady Bird is trying on different identities — dallying with theater and tiptoeing into different friend groups — all while pining after the erudite promises of East Coast colleges.
There’s nothing all that novel about the basic mechanics of Gerwig’s story (she also wrote the original screenplay). Variants of this coming of age tale have been told repeatedly on the screen, including the swerve away from trusted pals in favor of the popular kids, the inevitable disappointments delivered by dreamy boys, and the heated conflicts with parents. In execution, though, Gerwig makes the film sing with perfectly calibrated humor and deeply authentic observation. For one thing, Lady Bird features an uncommonly real depiction of the late teenage years, when adulthood beckons, but there’s also a familiar, automatic comfort in being a chattering, giggly kid.
Ronan, unsurprisingly, works wonders as Lady Bird. She shows the yearning behind the petulance and the vulnerability that is armored by bravado. She deploys the wry comic lines with crack timing and is especially strong in showing how arguments escalate through the use of long-stored verbal weapons, the latter best showcased in her acting duets with Metcalf. Lady Bird is smart, but cursed by still having so much to figure out, a common ailment at her age. Importantly, she is stubborn, but she learns, finding the graciousness to understand those who’ve caused her pain, such as her boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges, even better here than in his Oscar-nominated role in Manchester by the Sea).
Gerwig’s writing is strong, and her directorial skills are a gratifying match. The pacing is exemplary, and Gerwig has a striking yet unfussy visual sense. She knows how to let a scene build and how to cap a moment with just the right note, be it funny or melancholy or moving. Lady Bird holds an obviously personal story, but Gerwig presents it with a level of specificity that expands it into the universal. Of course Gerwig delivers on that front. That’s what great filmmakers do.