“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, is frisky and oddball in ways that are sometimes annoying and more often ingratiating. Gerwig, who also wrote the semi-autobiographical script, pushes all the emotional buttons – laughter, tears, heartbreak, nostalgia – right on cue, like a hit Broadway show, but she does so in such a seemingly haphazard way that it’s easy to miss (and forgive) the middlebrow calculation behind it all.
Saoirse Ronan, who always graces the screen no matter what the role, plays the unruly Christine McPherson, who has given herself the nickname “Lady Bird” and can’t wait to finish out her senior year in a Roman Catholic high school in Sacramento, Calif., so she can flee to a fancy college on the East Coast.
Two problems with that plan: Her grades aren’t terribly good, and even if they were, her parents can’t afford it. Her father (Tracy Letts), a computer programmer, is depressed and out of work, and her mother (a very sharp Laurie Metcalf) works two shifts as a nurse. The best scenes in the film pit mother against daughter. Both are fiercely strong-willed and contentious; they go at it like longtime combatants who know each other’s every weakness. And yet beneath all the tumult, it’s clear they share an abiding love. It’s one of the more believable mother-daughter duets I’ve seen in a while at the movies.
The film is set in 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and rather too much is made of that time frame. The adolescent coming-of-age pangs experienced by Lady Bird, to which we can all relate in some measure, are, after all, timeless. They don’t need the added gloss of historical import. The movie is best when it undercuts its own seriousness, as when Lady Bird's mother tells her, “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be,” and then Lady Bird replies, “What if this is the best version?” Grade: B- (Rated R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity, and teen partying.)
Editor's note: An earlier version of this review misattributed a quote from the film.