Greta Gerwig’s official directorial debut will make you laugh and then steal your heart.
It’s been ten years since Greta Gerwig’s debut as a screenwriter and co-director with the mumblecore feature Hannah Takes the Stairs. Since then, Gerwig has established herself as one of the most adored writers/actors in American independent film. Collaborating with Noah Baumbach, Gerwig most recently starred in and co-wrote both Frances Ha and Mistress America. These films, and the respective characters played by Gerwig, carried a certain quality tied to the actress’s keen wit and charm. When it was announced that Gerwig would be making her solo directorial debut with Lady Bird, some feared the film would be a retread of character and subject already exhausted in the previous two films. Instead, Lady Bird shows Gerwig – this time only behind the camera – with a matured voice showcasing one of the most charming and surprisingly affecting films of the year.
The partially autobiographical film stars Saoirse Ronan as Gerwig surrogate Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPhearson. In her senior year at a Sacramento Catholic high school, Lady Bird has the realization that she has only until the end of the school year to figure out her life. The year ahead will see her embrace her sexuality, strive to raise her grades, and attempt to form a habitable relationship with her mother (a stunning Laurie Metcalf.)
Gerwig’s screenplay soars due to an unabashed and brutal honesty. The film confronts classic coming-of-age film tropes in a refreshing and authoritative way. Unlike many high-school heroines who proceeded her – including the one in last year’s The Edge of Seventeen – Lady Bird doesn’t move through life with a “why me?” chip on her shoulder. Instead, she exudes an unusual confidence, going after the things she wants with eager glee instead of allowing things to simply happen to her. She wants to get closer to supposed heartthrob Danny (Lucas Hedges) so she auditions alongside him for the school musical and does just that. The musical in question is Stephen Sondheim’s flop, “Merrily We Roll Along,” a bizarre, reverse coming-of-age tale that wonderfully reflects the themes of Lady Bird while rightfully baffling its opening night crowd of parents and friends. Of course, those who are not familiar with the musical – which would be most people – would miss its clever relevance to the film’s plot. It is strategically placed allusions like this one that reveals the astonishing and careful craft of Gerwig’s writing.
While Ronan powerfully commands the film, Lady Bird truly belongs to Metcalf. Though she has found great work on the stage, the Rosanne actress has had a rather muted presence in the cinema. Perhaps a tribute to Gerwig’s own mother, Metcalf’s Marion is staunch, stubborn, and deeply compassionate. Marion is a woman that loves her daughter and wants nothing but the best for her, yet she has trouble conveying this in a way that breaks through to Lady Bird. When the film reaches its final moments, the dramatic baton is passed between Ronan to Metcalf, in three stunningly heartbreaking sequences that examine the striking bond between mothers and their daughters.
Gerwig has not only cemented herself as a confident, skilled filmmaker but has also crafted one of the strongest comedies to emerge this year. The film’s impeccable cast – which also includes Lois Smith and Tracy Letts – doesn’t have to stretch to unleash the depth of Gerwig’s script which unfolds with an elegant ease. Most importantly, Lady Bird is seriously affecting. The film charms its way into the hearts of its viewers quickly, establishing a near-immediate intimacy rarely found in the works of seasoned pros, let alone directorial debuts. Not only is this one of the best films of the season, but it’s also a bold reminder that Gerwig is far from a one-note talent destined to simply be dismissed to the sidelines. Her voice is loud and clear, and it’s one that’s surely and thankfully here to stay.