Garden variety coming of age films are so prevalent that it’s all the more refreshing when something truly personal and original like “Lady Bird” comes along. The small scale intimacy of the story about a teenage girl on the cusp of womanhood in Sacramento feels raw and real, its cozy focus creating a universal anecdote that relives (with bittersweet affection) a part of life that’s filled with constantly fluctuating highs and lows. This is exactly the type of indie filmmaking that we need more of, and the awkwardly charming Greta Gerwig has hit a home run with her equally awkwardly charming directorial debut.
The film gives an unromantic glimpse into middle class life in 2002, where we meet Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), her recently laid off and depressed dad (Tracy Letts), and her hardworking, steadfast mom (Laurie Metcalf). The film is perfectly cast, with Ronan and Metcalf being the real standouts (the two are at their best when pushed into blow-up clashes between mother and daughter, an emotional tug of war between a teen impatient to break away from a hometown that’s beneath her and a mother so desperately hanging on that she’s unable to express her love and disappointment). It’s apparent the actors felt emotionally connected to the material while on set, and their performances bring a biting honesty and empathy to the family dynamics of Gerwig’s screenplay.
Gerwig has said the film is semi-autobiographical and she writes with an authentic voice, taking great care with her story (a story told with the hindsight of being a grown up). She brings a confident wisdom, an earnest insight, and a fresh voice through a witty and bright script that mirrors her true-to-life, free spirited personality. It’s as if the film exists within its own glowing aura. With Gerwig at the helm, the film has a particular hipster quirkiness written all over it, yet its sunny disposition and sharp humor is abundant with sincerity and avoids falling into the trap of being overly cynical or jaded.
The film is so observant that I could totally and wholly relate to our adolescent heroine through a realism that instantly transported me to the past. While I grew up in a different decade, some of the situations seemed like actual pages ripped out of my own high school experience. There are plenty of moments in a teenage girl’s life where the trivial becomes momentous and the momentous becomes devastating, and they are presented here with a poignant and compassionate vibrancy that I’ve rarely seen so accurately captured on film.