The full complexity of a mother/daughter relationship gets a workout in Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s debut as a writer-director. It’s a disarming charmer, and one that’s fully committed towards narrative sympathy for its variety of characters. It’s equally likely to make you laugh as it is to make you cry, and sometimes it manages to switch between the two poles all in the same scene so masterfully that you barely noticed it happening.
This dichotomy is there right from the opening scene. Christine, who has dubbed herself Lady Bird for no particular given reason other than that her ambitions are as scattershot as they are gigantic, and her mother have completed both a college visit and listening to The Grapes of Wrath on tape. As they wipe away the tears from their faces, Lady Bird squirms for the radio and distraction while her mother asks that they sit in the emotion of what they’ve just heard. This somehow escalates into an all-out verbal assault from both parties before Lady Bird throws herself out of the car.
Family tensions are built upon innocuous moments turning into aggressive fights or chances to air grievances, and Lady Bird creates a metric ton for her family throughout. Lady Bird is at that particular age where you’re trying to shed the selfishness and impulsivity of the teenage years and grow into the more mature adult version of yourself, and those years are rife with fraught emotional upheavals. The hormones practically drip off the screen as she discovers how underwhelming losing your virginity can be, how it’s sometimes harder to breakup (and makeup) with friends than lovers, and that your parents are real people and not monolithic beings.
Gerwig assembles a cast that any director would be wise to envy. There’s Saoirse Ronan in the central role, and she’s developing into one of the best actresses of her generation with a range that’s impressive and an emotional openness and expressivity that’s refreshing. She begins as the definition of adolescent pique, and we witness her transformation into a more thoughtful, mature version of herself. Much of this is accomplished through Ronan’s physical choices as she seems to grow into her body’s lanky features as the film progresses. It’s a subtle choice but a smart one.
Just as great is Laurie Metcalf as her mother. Lady Bird really exists on the strengths and believability of this central relationship, and Ronan and Metcalf alternate between passive-aggressive spats and stopping cold to fawn over pawn shop finds. Metcalf’s mother clearly loves her daughter even as she sometimes stumbles over her expressions with aggressive jabs or misplaced slights. She’s a psychiatric nurse frequently working doubles and doing her best to keep her family together. There’s a touching scene where Metcalf is witnessed scrawling goodbye notes the night before Lady Bird is about to leave for college, each deemed not good enough to express her love for her daughter and thrown into a pile.
Metcalf and Ronan make their mother/daughter duo feel lived in and real in their numerous scenes together. Family relationships are complicated on a good day, and Lady Bird never shies away from this fact. Look at how the father figure tries to play peace keeper and good cop knowing full well how each of them will reaction to the various scenarios presented in the course of the film. Tracy Letts, one of many gifted Broadway actors Gerwig pilfered to fill in the supporting parts, is a master of minimalist acting choices. He clearly loves his family, but his depression causes him to retreat within himself and leave everyone slightly adrift too often. Letts expresses this quality through his body language and halting diction.
We understand these characters so well because Gerwig refuses to judge them. Look at Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, a theater geek she catches kissing another boy. He knows he’s done her wrong and comes to her with both an apology and a tear-filled confession about how his difficulty in reconciling his queerness with his Catholic faith. They hug while he begs her not to tell anyone as he knows his family will react badly, and she agrees to keep his secret. She even mentions that he’s still her friend later in the film. Gerwig never turns the situation into something grander or worse than it needs to be, and she asks that we give both of these character empathy as they flail about trying to figure out this whole growing up business.
There’s genuine tenderness here, and Lady Bird emerges as a great debut from an actor turned director. If this is what Gerwig is capable of at her first try, then I’m really excited about where she’s going to go from here. As someone who went to Catholic school for a brief period, had an occasionally flinty relationship with my mom, and participated in theater, Lady Bird struck some very specific notes with me. I found it insightful, touching, and funny in all the best ways.