Review: Greta Gerwig's 'Lady Bird' Starring Saoirse Ronan & Laurie Metcalf

Even if you didn't know Lady Bird was the directorial debut of effervescent indie darling Greta Gerwig, you would still know. Everything about it rings true with her voice, the one that brought such energy and spontaneity to Frances Ha and Mistress America, the two films she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, who had never made movies like them before. Gerwig put so much of herself into creating those characters that just seem like extensions of her personality. And so it's no surprise that Gerwig is the main reason why the semi-autobiographical Lady Bird rises to the top of the coming-of-age genre, a field that is increasingly difficult to separate from.

From the tone, which veers from dramatic to screwball at the drop of a hat, to the clever turns of phrase, to the funny, pinpoint observations about city life, everything about this feels like your classic Greta Gerwig movie. And no, it's not too early to start calling Greta Gerwig movies classics...okay, maybe it is, but it won't be for long. The only difference is that Saoirse Ronan is in the lead role of Sacramento native Christine, who is eager for the senior year of Catholic School to be over. She wants to get out of town as fast as possible, off to an expensive school anywhere but there, even though it's probably out of their price range. Her pitbull of a mom (Laurie Metcalf, a treat to see her on the big screen) would rather she go somewhere closer to home, while dad (Tracy Letts) just wants to see his daughter happy.

There are little rebellions, like having pink hair, nicknaming herself Lady Bird, and spray painting "Just Married" on the car of a friendly nun (Lois Smith). And of course, there are boys, like Danny (Oscar nominee Lucas Hedges), the lead in the school play Christine joins along with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who turns out to be a better actress; and the local bad boy Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), who also turns out to be more than he appears.

It all sounds so familiar, doesn't it? While there's comfort in the tropes we've come to recognize, what makes Lady Bird special are the touches that are uniquely Gerwig's. The lessons Christine comes to learn are what we would expect, but not how she learns them. First love goes in the wrong direction, as it so often does, however Gerwig puts a spin on it that is both surprising and, later, turns out to be heartbreaking. When a character refers to Sacramento as "the Midwest of California", its implications are more than just the boredom compared to the rest of the state. Christine has to figure out her ideals, and whether those ideals are best served where she is now or someplace else. I think it was a novel approach by Gerwig to set the film in 2002; it allows her to look back while her characters move forward. So many of these movies do it the other way around, with a character who has already left returning home, and remembering the details that they had taken for granted. Gerwig's approach is better; it allows for Christine, and for us, to discover many of those details ourselves. In that way, it reminded me a lot of another of my favorite films this year, Columbus. A hometown can always be a place of new surprises if we just open ourselves up to it.

It's the relationship between Christine and her mother that feels so fresh. The fights between mother and daughter are tense, and they sometimes boil over, but they're always rooted in love, even when it doesn't always look that way. And as it becomes clearer that this may not be where she calls home forever, the moments Christine shares with her friends and family take on a much richer quality.

Lady Bird would have been a very different movie with Gerwig in front of the camera. I think Ronan is perhaps the most naturally gifted young actress working today. She just makes everything seem so effortless. That may also be why she is frequently upstaged by Metcalf in the best role she's had since Roseanne went off the air. Together, Ronan and Metcalf are dynamite and complement one another so well. The entire cast shines, with Gerwig giving everyone enough room to let their characters breathe. Nobody is short changed here.

Most of all, the audience is left with a wonderfully fulfilling experience. Gerwig has a way of making her personal experiences resonate with others, and Lady Bird may leave you with fond memories of home.

Rating: 4 out of 5