Lady Bird is fit to stand beside the most glittering examples of female coming-of-age films

Greta Gerwig’s light touch avoids cliché and gives everything the smell of fresh laundry.

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There are many female coming-of-age films directed by women: Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda and Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk are among the glittering examples that Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird is more than fit to stand beside. The picture takes its title from the self-appointed nickname of the strawberry-haired, milk-faced Christine (Saoirse Ronan). It is 2002 and she is on the cusp of graduating from a Catholic high school in Sacramento where she is a benignly defiant low-level rebel.

She heckles an anti-abortion speaker, gets caught with her hand in the wafer jar (“They’re not consecrated!”) and unnerves the faculty with her “Lady Bird for President” campaign posters (“It’s just a head on a bird’s body”). Gerwig’s deft screenplay and Nick Houy’s snappy editing keep these vignettes popping, never lingering too long on anything; they’re the colourful dots that form a pointillist portrait of Lady Bird’s life.

Boys drift in and out. She nurtures crushes on a budding actor, Danny (Lucas Hedges), and a cool-cat guitarist, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). But her priorities are limited to goofing around with her sweetly dopey pal, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), plotting to get into a college far from home and battling with the defining force in her life: her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who lives by the principle that if you can’t say anything nice, it’s better to be brutally frank instead.

Marion has the unique ability to start a sentence as her daughter’s champion and end it as her most withering critic, but it can flip the other way just as easily. As they snipe at one another while shopping for a prom dress, their rancour is forgotten in an instant when Marion plucks from the rails a plausible contender and the pair of them descend into oohs and aahs. Metcalf, who was brilliantly flinty in the blue-collar sitcom Roseanne, excels once more at conveying shame and inferiority based on class. Her reaction when she learns that Lady Bird has been referring to their neighbourhood as “the wrong side of the tracks” amounts to a fleeting wince of inexpressible heartbreak.

The struggle between homely familiarity and big-city sophistication, clinging parent and spirited child, is familiar to the point of cliché. But the film’s light touch, and the affectionate sparring of Ronan and Metcalf, gives everything the smell of fresh laundry. Gerwig is known primarily as an actor, though she has shown a gift all along for writing candid, twitchy comedy, first in the “mumblecore” genre (no-budget DIY rom-coms) and then with her partner, the director Noah Baumbach, on Frances Ha and Mistress America. In those films she riffed on her kooky persona, but more importantly she prioritised stories of female friendship over the usual boy-meets-girl narratives. That continues here. The men in Lady Bird, including Christine’s depressed father (Tracy Letts), are sharply drawn, but the clinching moments all involve women negotiating conflicts between their own ambitions and the value of loyalty to one another. Gerwig dramatises this most beautifully in a simple, wrenching shot near the end of the film: the camera is fixed on Marion as she wrestles with her conscience, the oblivious sun beating down on her face.

Though Gerwig has denied that Lady Bird is entirely autobiographical, she did grow up in Sacramento, eventually fleeing it to study at Barnard in New York, and she has sprinkled the movie with choice details from her life. The man on whom the character of Danny is based staged the high-school version of Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along that we see in the film, while his grandmother, who once taught Gerwig to fold decorative napkins, does the same thing here for Lady Bird. The densely packed detail which makes this such a luminous work shows Gerwig to be an uncommonly alert filmmaker. “Don’t you think love and attention are the same thing?” asks a nun who reads Lady Bird’s essay about her home town. That comment sheds light on the mother-daughter relationship but it applies also to the film itself. “It took time to realise that Sacramento gave me what home should give you, which is roots and wings,” the director has said. Her film has those, too. It’s grounded in experience – and it soars. 

Lady Bird (15)
dir: Greta Gerwig

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist