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It’s been terrific to watch, and be surprised by, Greta Gerwig’s evolution as a film artist. Having missed her entire early career as the leading lady of the mumblecore movement from 2006 to 2011, I finally became aware of her goofy charms in Greenberg (2010). For a while, I frankly thought she was a one-trick pony, her voice and physicality being so distinctive and consistent across the next few of her films that she seemed destined to play variations of herself. But then her craft seemed to expand, and in roles like Abbie in 20th Century Women (2016) she revealed greater depth of characterization. Indeed, in a film full of great actresses, for me she stole that show.
Meanwhile, her writing developed alongside. She co-wrote the lovely, humble Frances Ha (2012) with her paramour Noah Baumbach, and then did so again, more ecstatically, with the razor-sharp, truly witty Mistress America (2015). Now, she journeys solo as a writer, and directs, with the sublime Lady Bird, and in doing so gives us her origin story.
The film is billed as “semi-autobiographical,” but it’s so full of precise – and off-beat – observations that I’m taking it as pretty close to her real life. In fact, it’s so personal that the final lines of the film feel like they’re intended for an audience of one (while not actually excluding the rest of us, no mean feat). It covers the final year in the Catholic High School career of Gerwig’s surrogate, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, Oscar-nominated), taking in her relationships with boys, her best friend, her teachers (including the nuns), her family and, most vitally, her mother (Laurie Metcalf, nominated in the Supporting category).
The script is fantastic – smart, witty, revealing, precise, and concise. Gerwig and Baumbach pulled off something tricky with the script of Mistress America, constructing the third act as one continuous set-piece in the vein of a theatrical farce, but Gerwig goes in the opposite direction here, keeping every scene surprisingly brief. Blink and you’ll miss one; go for a wee and you’ll miss three. Thankfully you shouldn’t have to; in keeping with the speedy vibe, the whole shebang is over in 94 minutes.
I could have watched it for days. Ronan is staggeringly charming and appealing, even when Lady Bird is not. There is absolutely an element of Gerwig in her performance, specifically in her physical mannerisms, a kind of shaking of the lower face that was a hallmark of Gerwig’s, at least from 2010 to 2015. Metcalf is solid and real, and there is an exciting find in Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s bestie Julie. Her character has an entire, intriguing arc, not all of which we’re privy to; Gerwig leaves its darker elements off-screen, as though Lady Bird / Gerwig didn’t hear the whole story until after this story ended.
My experience of the film was light, delightful, airy and droll, but I think that the closer you yourself are to Lady Bird the more the film’s heavier, darker notes will resonate. If you’re a young woman with a mother and a Catholic School education, you’ve almost certainly found, in this beautiful film, your Catcher In The Rye, your Rushmore, your Sixteen Candles, your Juno, your origin story.