Tumbling into Adulthood with “Lady Bird”


A late review of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” in a pre-Oscars review series.



Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, “Lady Bird,” is an affectionate meditation on the ecstatic missteps of adolescence. Her script is peppered with witticisms that teenagers will throw out, often inappropriately; taken out of context, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s (played by the radiant shape-shifter Saoirse Ronan) indignant ripostes could be framed—“Just because something looks ugly doesn’t mean it’s morally wrong,” and “Different things can be sad. It’s not all war”—but mostly embroil her in fiery arguments with her critical, fastidious mother (Laurie Metcalf), and earn her a suspension from school. The film follows Lady Bird’s travails through her senior year of high school to her first moments in college, and picks up at the moment Lady Bird takes it upon herself to start living—she has her first kiss, ditches her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) for the popular girl (Odeya Rush), and romanticizes losing her virginity to her hilariously self-indulgent boyfriend Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). Each disappointment is never too wrenching, because Lady Bird is so courageously stubborn that you are convinced from the beginning, when she rolls out of a moving car after her mother discourages her wish to attend college on the East Coast, that she will always land on her feet, however precariously.


The amazing feat of Gerwig’s script is that, through its expertly paced, witty but refreshingly unceremonious dialogue, it shows how teenagers betray themselves without knowing it: when Julie leaves for class, Lady Bird stomps her feet and exclaims, “I hate being alone.” Ronan, with a perfect deadpan, portrays the carelessness that comes with a specifically adolescent self-conviction: she’s remarkably attuned to her feelings, puts her foot down when she needs to, is aware of her own theatrics when ingratiating herself with the popular crowd, but also has a capacity for unthinking cruelty.


Nothing and everything is remarkable about this film. With Gerwig’s judicious editing, each scene of ordinary growing-up will land like a charming joke to which you don’t know the punchline. The tableaus she constructs with peripheral characters, to orient you in Lady Bird’s pocket of Sacramento, are random but precious snapshots of adolescence: in Lady Bird’s Catholic girls’ school, her classmate runs for student council on a campaign that involves boys and better vending machines. She and Julie munch on communion wafers and talk about all that’s unholy. With her keen observational skills, Gerwig invites affection for the self-serious teenagers, drawing attention to subtle moments in which character blossoms. The moments the camera lingers on Julie’s gaze when her math teacher flirts with her will earn your adoring laughter. In another quick, funny scene, the theater teacher draws out completely incoherent football plays of the stage on a chalkboard, as students dutifully scribble them down. Kyle, a brooding, wealthy rock-musician, tries not to support the economy, and idealizes surviving on bartering alone. You’ll never feel poised to belittle these teenagers for their ridiculous affectations, because you know that you too once believed that if you tried hard enough to be somebody, you could, just as Lady Bird proclaims, of her name, “I gave it to myself. It was given to me by me.”


There’s a wistful sadness that pervades the entire film. In silence, the camera cuts to neon facades around town, and other cheap surfaces that seem filtered through an adolescent gaze. They exemplify the trappings and burnished charms of middle-class suburbia and evoke that all-too-familiar rage-fuelled teenage wanderlust. Lady Bird does grow throughout the film, later driving around town by herself for the first time, seeing her world with new appreciation. “Lady Bird” isn’t as dramatic as another recent, notable coming-of-age film, “The Edge of Seventeen,” and probably won’t thrust you into a dreamy, emotional stupor like “Call Me by Your Name” can. Lady Bird simply emerges from her senior year having lived a bit more, not yet weary, but you’ll leave the theater feeling a little lighter, as if you had just watched some creature hatch and take flight.


Claire Park (claire_park@college.harvard.edu) remains loyal to “Call Me by Your Name,” but will cherish this movie for how it so unexpectedly captured the spirit of her own adolescence.