Greta Gerwig may lack range as an actress, but it’s possible that her real talent lies behind the camera instead of in front of it. With “Lady Bird” (A24), her second full-length feature film as writer/director (and first since she co-wrote and co-directed the 2008 mumblecore movie Nights and Weekends), Gerwig joins the ranks of acclaimed female filmmakers such as Jill Soloway, Nicole Holofcener, Dee Rees, Lisa Cholodenko, Gillian Robespierre and Sofia Coppola.
Within the first few minutes of the Sacramento-set film we discover that Christine aka Lady Bird (Saiorse Ronan) and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf in an Oscar-worthy performance) don’t get along. As proof, in the middle of a disagreement in a moving car, with Marion behind the wheel, Lady Bird opens the passenger door and throws herself out of the vehicle. Her reward is still being alive and wearing a bright pink cast on which she inscribes “fuck you mom”.
It’s 2002 and Lady Bird is a directionless and unpopular student on scholarship at Immaculate Heart High School. She lives “on the wrong side of the tracks” with her mother Marion, a nurse, and her father Larry (Tracy Letts), who is soon to find himself out of a job. Lady Bird’s older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodriguez) and his girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott) also live there. She hates Sacramento and wants to go to school in New York, a city for which she feels great affection without ever having been there.
Faced with the necessity to buckle down, in order to maintain her scholarship as well as having something to offer the colleges to which she is applying, Lady Bird finds herself in a variety of precarious and often humorous situations. Best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) convinces her to audition for the school play, Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along”, and they both get cast. Lady Bird falls for the male lead, rich kid Danny (Lucas Hedges, from “Manchester By the Sea”), only to have her heart broken when she discovers him kissing a male classmate.
Lady Bird also explores her bad girl side and befriends popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), another student from a wealthy family, thereby abandoning Julie. She dates musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), an experience that doesn’t exactly go the way she expects. Not surprisingly, this only creates a greater rift between Lady Bird and Marion, leading to an emotionally draining confrontation that forever changes their mother/daughter dynamic.
“Lady Bird” is that rare combination of comedy and drama, fresh and original writing matched with strong direction. Metcalf and Ronin are mesmerizing. Gerwig even gets a remarkably controlled and respectable performance out of actor/playwright Letts. The supporting cast, including the aforementioned Hedges and Chalamet, as well as Lois Smith as the school principal Sister Sarah Joan, are all marvelous. Take wing and see “Lady Bird”. Grade: A-