As filmmaking — U.S. filmmaking, anyway — becomes more and more entrenched in an era of high-concept spectacle, in which every new offering must have a big, shimmering storytelling hook, Greta Gerwig’s debut as the solely credited director offers the assurance that nothing is as valuable than the strong voice of an empathetic, observant creator. Lady Bird depicts one year, more or less, in the life of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who begins the film as a new high school senior, filled with aspirations of bigger and better opportunities far away from her hometown of Sacramento. She traipses through a fairly familiar series of travails — family strife, roller coaster romances, squabbles with friends — as she gradually shapes her sense of self.
What sets Lady Bird apart — and indeed draws it close to pure cinematic perfection — is the resonant authority of truthfulness Gerwig brings to her storytelling. There are still flourishes and smartly constructed details (the dreamboat rebel, played with marvelous cool by Timothée Chalamet, reading Howard Zinn alone at a party) that reveal whole personalities, relationships, and treacherous social ecosystems in an especially economical and astute flicker. The writing is incredibly strong, and Gerwig exhibits confidence in her performers to bring additional nuance to individual scenes and exchanges. Gerwig writes wisely and warmly about life, then lets her cast, led by Ronan and the magical Laurie Metcalf, show precisely how those lives are lived.
Across the film, Gerwig pulls off countless miracles. Lady Bird is sentimental without being soft, sharp-edged without being judgmental, modest in scale without ever feeling small. She employ smooth visuals of lovely construction without caving to the pretty picture book phenomenon or rambunctious trickery that can dog directors in the early stages of their filmographies. The film is elegant and humane, intent on honoring every figure in it and the viewers open-hearted enough to embrace its simple, special wonders.