So quietly has actor-writer Greta Gerwig been building up a name for herself in US entertainment that before Lady Bird I hadn't noticed her. It took sharper, more culturally aware eyes than mine to pick out her career as one to watch. Since its arrival on the festival circuit in September 2017 Gerwig's directorial debut has been charming the socks and pants off critics, gradually building up mainstream attention and attracting a host of award nominations, (even if none were converted into actual trophies). I'd love to go all iconoclastic and tell you the film's not all that... But it's good. In fact it's very good. And from the craft with which it's made, Gerwig is quite the big deal.
Set in Sacramento, 2002, Lady Bird draws on elements of Gerwig's own formative years without being fully autobiographical. Saoirse Ronan plays the eponymous teenager (real name Christine), who in final year at a local Catholic high school, while her white-collar family struggle due to reduced circumstances. Lady Bird has grand ambitions, both artistic and social, that threaten to put her at odds with family and friends alike. 'How did I raise such a snob?' bewails her mother (Laurie Metcalfe), in a memorable car scene early on. There are the usual teenage rites of passage - tentative dates, clashes with teachers and family squabbles - but aspects of this Bird's behaviour threaten to undermine the closest relationships in her life.
This kind of story has been told before, but seldom with this much charm, lack of fuss and attention to the minutiae of school and family interactions. The humour and the drama are never overplayed and are all the more believable as a result. If the first half hour has a patchwork 'where is this going' quality to it, the answers come soon enough. The smartly edited vignettes from Lady Bird's day-to-day existence form into a collage of her whole existence. The film ultimately is about nothing more or less than what we've all gone through - that flailing, desperate period of our lives where we're trying to define ourselves as adults, while still acting like children. And the joy is in the detail.
All the performances, under Gerwig's eye, are convincing, with a few standing out. Metcalfe more than earns her Oscar nomination as the mom, full of sardonic wisdom and attitude; the constantly overlapping dialogue between mother and daughter is brilliantly authentic. Manchester by the Sea's Lucas Hedges finds real depth in love-interest Danny, while Timothy Chalamet (Call Me By Your Name - and no, I still haven't seen it) is eminently slappable as pretentious teen musician Kyle. And Beanie Feldstein is sweetly touching as Lady's bestie Julie. Ultimately this is a whole-group effort. The home scenes have a genuinely ramshackle domestic quality and the school life is captured with seeming precision. (The ups and downs of the drama society are particularly entertaining.)
Lady Bird is no shouty film, crammed with dramatic fireworks. It succeeds by finding its comedy and its drama in the very ordinary. The girl of the title may not be Gerwig herself, but this is a world that the director knows inside-out. And spending time there with her turns out to be a slow-burning delight.
Gut Reaction: Smiled a lot, laughed aloud several times. Got teary twice. Wasn't expecting that.
Where Are the Women?: It's Greta Gerwig's project through and though. And both Ronan and Metcalfe do her writing proud.
Ed's Verdict: 8/10. A beautiful distillation of one year in one teenager's life. Great writing splendidly performed, then crafted via the editing suite into a little gem.