Greta Gerwig is one of the greatest working actresses of our time. Each of her performances, large or small, demonstrates a nuanced understanding of the human condition and how to best express it. She’s been quietly dominating the independent film scene for a little while now: Gerwig humbly sprouted in mumblecore (a film genre typified by naturalistic acting and dialogue), subsequently writing and acting her way through gems like “Frances Ha” and “20th Century Women” to grow into an earnest encapsulation of youth and femininity. Her solo directorial debut “Lady Bird” understandably has the indie scene excited.
Gerwig built her body of work on portraying the troubled twenty-something, but the story she’s decided to tell is one of that archetype’s origins. “Lady Bird” follows Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a Catholic schoolgirl who is decidedly nothing like a Catholic schoolgirl and calls herself Lady Bird to signify that. Her life is a muddled myriad of love/hate relationships with her controlling mother, authority structures, and her position on the lower end of the middle-class scale.
Even as a writer/director working independently, Gerwig digs into the soil that nourishes the bloom of human nature: our venture through the daily paradoxical. From moments mundane to formational, McPherson struggles to reconcile her distastes and how she lets them define her. “Lady Bird” empathetically fathoms its title character’s conflicted individuality—so it’s a shame that its narrative beats aren’t equally singular.
Gerwig’s screenplay is whip-smart, but slight. Her background in mumblecore left her with a taste for punchy conversations: there’s a lot of dialogue in “Lady Bird”, but it all feels sparse, thanks to the calculated effectiveness of every line. This is a quotable, funny, and lively little film. Hormones and college decisions bubble through whispers and shouts with the unburdened verve that high school fosters. Too little of it sinks in to lasting effect, though—brief flashes of profound pain stand out, but “Lady Bird” is largely forgettable pleasantness.
This is the fault of an overly familiar story. You’d be hard-pressed to argue that narrative is the most important part of “Lady Bird” (or of most movies), but filmmakers still choose the plots that frame their films’ ideas, and Gerwig chose one that’s been done to death. Narrative conflicts play out exactly how you’d predict they would; well-worn character tropes fill out coming of age clichés that we’ve seen a million times before. The soundtrack doesn’t do it any favors: it’s spot on for the time period, but it contributes to the whole movie feeling a bit twee.
Gerwig’s direction rarely rises above functional, but her assured hand points towards a promising future. Clever visual choices are spices in “Lady Bird”, reassuring us that there’ll be less blandness next time around.
The central performances are what differentiate “Lady Bird” from the droves of other movies like it. If you can’t identify with the adolescent yearnings of Saoirse Ronan’s masterful turn, you never grew up. Laurie Metcalf bleeds sentiment and motherly fury that hits home to the point of discomfort; Tracy Letts does the emotional utmost through body language as Christine’s father. The McPherson family is fiercely human.
“Lady Bird” is far from a masterpiece, but Gerwig has constructed a pretty flawless time machine.