Actress and writer Greta Gerwig makes her directorial debut with the flawless “Lady Bird,” a funny, poignant and assured film about that fleeting, heady moment during the transition from high school to college. Anchored by stellar performances and a clear voice, “Lady Bird” draws its universal relatability from its richly rendered specificity.
It’s all too easy to label “Lady Bird” as autobiographical. But it’s more than that. Gerwig is from Sacramento, Calif., went to a Catholic school and attended college in New York. Her heroine, Christine, aka Lady Bird (Saorise Ronan), dreams of flying away from Sacramento — “the Midwest of California” — and landing at some East Coast liberal arts college.
The film takes place in 2002 and 2003, and Gerwig captures the era’s specifics: the invasion of Iraq on the news, ska music, puka shell necklaces, Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, flared jeans.
Lady Bird (the name she gave herself) is an eccentric among the uniformed masses at her Catholic high school, sporting dyed pink hair, a tangle of chokers and a hot pink cast on her wrist she got hurling herself from a moving vehicle during a fight with her mom. Her studied weirdness is a result of her passionate, creative personality, her misfit status and her lower socioeconomic class — she has to shop at thrift stores, so she makes quirky vintage chic her personal style.
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“Lady Bird” is the story of a self-possessed teen going through a process of self-actualization. She tests her wings — trying out for the school musical, pursuing a relationship with a sweet theater nerd, then exploring what it’s like to flirt with the popular crew for a while, rejecting her oddball friends, hooking up with a bad boy.
Soon she realizes it’s much more fun to just be yourself. Beanie Feldstein is so endearing as Lady Bird’s spurned best friend, Jules, that you just may harbor some resentment at the rejection until Lady Bird finally comes around.
Although “Lady Bird” is marked by two significant romantic relationships, ultimately, it’s truly about the women in her life: Jules and especially her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).
The arguments, silent treatments and passive aggressions between Lady Bird and her mother are all too real, revealing the uncomfortable truths of the relationships between mothers and daughters. Metcalf turns in a stunning performance, communicating complex reactions in the tiniest of facial expressions. As Lady Bird’s father, Tracy Letts is a wonderfully gentle presence.
“Lady Bird” is a finely wrought, deeply felt mash note to Gerwig’s hometown, and the rare film about teenage life that puts as much weight on the dark, sad and tough parts as it does on the joyous, raucous, euphoric moments.
It’s a film about a place, but it’s also about the way that time creates a sense of place, and how time changes your relationship to that place. The idea of “home” transforms during the moment that she depicts, that liminal space before adult life begins; from child to adult, from home to away from home.
(At Glenwood Arts, Tivoli and Town Center.)
Rated R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying.