Hearing that a new coming-of-age story will hit screens is the indie/awards season version of the announcement of a new comic book blockbuster. It’s inevitable that a handful of these will be released every year, and it’s rare that they actually add anything new to the form. However, every now and then a coming-of-age movie brings a perspective and purpose just surprising and moving enough to overcome the trappings of the genre. Greta Gerwig’s ‘Lady Bird’ is one of those.
The film is so charming and moving and funny and playful and perceptive and true that it not only justifies dipping into the coming-of-age well again, but might just inspire a whole new wave of these things. Gerwig isn’t just a performer exploring writing and directing; she has a distinctive filmmaking voice and is one of the most exciting talents working today.
Gerwig inched to this point while building up a steady career as a delightfully eccentric actress. She was involved in writing a handful of the mumblecore movies that made her name before breaking out with Noah Baumbach’s beautifully heartfelt and painfully funny ‘Frances Ha’. The clever editing, dialogue, and delicate heart of that movie are so thoroughly embedded into this one that it’s instantly clear she was every bit as much the author of that film as Baumbach. Like ‘Frances Ha’, describing the plot of ‘Lady Bird’ doesn’t do it much justice. It’s the execution that’s special.
Essentially, the film is about a moody teen coming into her own. Her name is Christine (Saoirse Ronan), but she now insists on being called Lady Bird because she’s at that level of adolescent pretention. The story opens with her on the road with her overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf, never better). They’ve been looking at colleges, but when Christine suggests that she might want to study on the Ivy League east coast, her mom lets loose a lecture that only stops when the young girl leaps out of the car at full speed. She ends up in a cast, and the film is in motion with its two primary characters established at different ends of stubborn extremes.
The rest of the movie plays out over the course of Christine’s final year of high school. She has a best friend (Beanie Feldstein) whom she bonds with over their shared love of sarcastically dismissing everyone else from a noble outcast perspective. She tries out for the school musical a little too enthusiastically, but at least lands the boyfriend she has her eye on (Lucas Hedges), which inevitably ends horribly in unexpected ways. She dabbles with buddying up with the popular kids. She feuds with her mother about almost everything and with her stepbrother and stepsister about everything else. She learns to understand her father (Tracy Letts) on a deeper level. She grows up.
‘Lady Bird’ isn’t hinged on some sort of falsely grandiose emotional arc that signifies growing up. Gerwig’s script is too wise for that. Instead, it passes by in a rush of big and little moments that add up to something more. Jump-cut editing between scenes blurs timelines, often leaping forward for just a few lines of dialogue and then landing in another scene. It keeps the movie punchy, stylish and funny, but also has a deeper purpose. The way the film moves feels like the overdramatic rush of those final teen years, where you’re desperate to grow up, leaping from milestone life moments while barely realizing it, and often only realizing how significant it all is in hindsight, when things finally slow down enough for consideration. It’s a wonderfully cinematic way to explore the material, so strong and effective that it’s surprising no one has quite done this technique before. Within those vignettes, Gerwig also gradually grows a wonderful world of characters to touch on a variety of themes from class to race to sexuality to ambitions and family – everything that is so important at that age, even if you don’t notice it. Gerwig hits all the big themes in small and subtle ways. Nothing overwhelms the narrative with shoved-down-your-throat import, yet so much is handled so delicately and with such clarity.
The secret is that it all comes through great character and performance, which should come as no surprise given Gerwig’s years as an actress. She gets heartbreakingly true and potent work out of Laurie Metcaff and Tracy Letts, and pretty much anyone else who steps in front of her cameras. Of course, Saoirse Ronan is at the center and the highlight, proving that the depth and deadpan humor she’s shown before are no fluke and creating a lovable outsider without fear of coming off as unlikable in her extremes. It’s a beautifully measured performance in a movie that walks just as delicate of a line.
‘Lady Bird’ is easily one of the finest coming-of-age movies in years and will likely end up being one of the best movies of any kind this year as well. That doesn’t mean it’s likely to garner too much attention or acclaim, though. The movie is too strong and small for the Oscars. ‘Lady Bird’ will become the favorite movie of a whole generation of awkward teens who need it like ‘Rushmore’ or ‘Heathers’ before it. That’s better and what Gerwig deserves. Now that the filmmaker has defined such a distinct voice for herself, it’ll be exciting to see what she does with it.