Greta Gerwig has matured out of playing the adorable, quirky, self-absorbed with self-invention young women of “Hannah Takes the Stairs” and “Damsels in Distress.” In film after film, she’s let us see the social;y striving — posh, put-on accents, affected to-the-manner-born posing, feigned enthusiasm and self-promotion in every character (“Frances Ha,” “Mistress America”).
Hard to pull that off past 30. But with “Lady Bird,” she’s found a way to pass the torch.
The wonderful Saoirse Ronan channels her writer-director in Gerwig’s self-written, semi-autobiographical comedy “Lady Bird.” And as amusing as it was to hear the affected, pretentiously daffy Gerwig locutions playing perky, upbeat and willfully dizzy Gerwig characters in Woody Allen’s fantasy of New York, the writer-director has parked this rough draft of herself in a warm, witty and wise comedy about growing up in Sacramento, and yearning far-too-openly for something else.
Christine (Ronan) goes to a Catholic School with, her furiously critical mother never forgets to remind her, “rich kids.” Mom, given an acrid desperation by Laurie Metcalf, is equally blunt in telling Christine, “We’re NOT rich,” that her daughter’s college aspirations don’t match her talents. “You can’t even pass your driver’s test…You aren’t even worth state (college) tuition.”
But in 2002, in the shadow of 9/11, a Sacramento girl can dream. Grades be damned, she wants to go to an school in the East, to New York.
“I want to go where CULTURE is.”
Her guidance counselor laughs in her face. Her teachers, some of them nuns (Lois Smith) are gentler, but just as realistic. It’s just that a girl who has renamed herself “Lady Bird,” who hopelessly runs for class president every year, who’s clueless that her innate theatricality means she might want to consider school plays instead of hopeless dreams of mathletic glory, isn’t about realism.
When she finally dips her toe in the joint girls school/boys school fall musical of her senior year (Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along”) Lady Bird isn’t an instant star (though Ronan allows her a flamboyant charisma and stage presence). But that’s where she meets her first love.
Danny, given an awkward, amusing luminescence by Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”) clicks with Lady Bird. She may be, as she declares, “from the wrong side of the tracks,” but to Danny, she’s a kindred spirit, and Hedges registers unalloyed delight in her presence. If this dizzy, naive teen from the provinces can charm this rich, handsome leading man, who knows where she can go in the world?
Gerwig casts a rich, lived-in tapestry for Lady Bird to inhabit, and that makes the high school movie cliches play fresh. The plump best friend (Beanie Feldstein) who shares Lady Bird’s academic underachievement, the rich girl (Odeya Rush) she wants to impress, the brooding “deep” musician (Timothee Chalamet) she is drawn to all are given a Gerwig twist.
A JV football coach/priest called in to direct a play, in a pinch, feels like a rejected idea from a John Hughes comedy of the ’80s. But it’s funny here.
The beating heart of the picture pulses through the parents. Metcalf, so much more than “Rosanne’s” sister, makes the mother a study in furious resignation, an unfiltered, foul-mouthed nurse who alternately indulges and insults, coddles and cudgels her youngest child. And playwright/actor Tracy Letts (“The Lovers,” TV’s “Divorce”) tries his hand at warm and cute as “the good cop” dad, the one there to comfort and spoil his daughter and encourage the dreams her mom is hellbent on crushing.
Ronan, at 23 reaching the end of her teen movie window, is never less than brilliant as a girl in mid-evolution. Lady Bird’s poses, priorities and passions are mercurial and Ronan and Gerwig get this across in big, broad strokes. Let’s try smoking. Let’s dazzle the rich girl by playing an elaborate prank on Sister Sarah Joan (Smith). Let’s take on the “bad boy” musician instead of the sweet-souled actor.
It’s the genius of this genial, formulaic coming-of-age comedy that Lady Bird never seems too broadly drawn. We’ve known this kid, gone to school with her, watched her reinventions continue straight on into college.
And every so often we caught a glimpse of the “real” her, her farsighted reach for a sophisticated world that the rest of us hadn’t yet sensed. “Yeah,” we thought. “She’s right. She doesn’t belong here. ”
MPAA Rating: R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Odeya Rush
Credits: Written and directed by Greta Gerwig. An A24 release.
Running time: 1:33