Already, writer-director Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” is contending with praise it can’t possibly live up to, and it’s a disservice to mislead anybody about its particular, disarming interplay of comedy and drama, which does not go for the throat.
But it’s not too strong a word: Most people who’ve seen “Lady Bird” love it. They love it. Truly love it.
I love it. If a more enchanted movie comes along this year, I’ll be surprised.
The love goes beyond appreciation of an impeccably made coming-of-age story. It transcends even the crucial matter of casting, which is magically right in “Lady Bird,” starting with Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts. What Gerwig accomplishes in her first solo screenwriting and directorial effort does not seem like effort at all; the script (which carried the working title “Mothers and Daughters”) may be carefully finessed and distilled, but the scenes, often very pithy, build on relationships, not gags.
Gerwig’s film, inspired by her memories of growing up in Sacramento, Calif., relates directly to her own skills as an actress, and her earlier screenplays co-written with Noah Baumbach (“Frances Ha,” “Mistress America”). She brings a paradoxically precise throwaway quality to her work, both in front of and behind the camera. Gerwig doesn’t act in “Lady Bird,” but her warming sense of humor, her facility with verbal screwball and her powers of remembrance and observation make the mother/daughter relationship at her movie’s core all the more affecting.
Christine McPherson, aka Lady Bird, is desperate to get out of Sacramento and move to New York City. It’s the beginning of the 2002-03 school year. War in Iraq looms. Played with artful layers of poise, confidence, awkwardness and authentic yearning by Ronan, Lady Bird is a senior at an all-girls Catholic high school. Her mother, Marion (Metcalf), a double-shift psych ward nurse married to a genial depressive (Letts), didn’t want her daughter to attend the public high school. Lady Bird’s adopted brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) went there, as Marion reminds her daughter in a testy car ride home from a state college tour, and he “saw somebody knifed right in front of him.”
The scene in the car, opening the movie, is stunningly efficient, riding on overlapping dialogue (“How did I raise such a snob?” Marion wonders) and giving both characters a lot to seethe about. Metcalf, the Steppenwolf Theatre stalwart who won a Tony Award for “A Doll’s House, Part 2,” gets a ripping performance rhythm going with Ronan. The car scene could be taught in directing classes, writing classes and acting classes.
Best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, fantastic in her sweetness and resilience), understands Lady Bird like no one else. Lady Bird’s restless, though, eager to be liked and accepted by new circles of friendship, and by boys. The girls try out for the school musical, Sondheim’s peppy celebration of disillusionment “Merrily We Roll Along,” to be performed along with the all-boys Catholic high school. When Lady Bird spies charming, gangly Danny (Lucas Hedges, of “Manchester by the Sea”), it’s crush at first sight and yet another reminder that “Lady Bird” is a miracle of casting.
“Lady Bird” takes Lady Bird through her senior year, as she becomes Danny’s girlfriend (no sex; too much “respect,” Danny says) and then falls in with a faster, richer crowd, leaving Julie adrift. Lady Bird tries to rejigger her act to be cool enough to earn the high opinion of snotty Jenna (Odeya Rush, who pulls out a then-novel cellphone at a particularly telling moment). Cautious intimacy with Danny is followed by Boy No. 2, Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), a charismatic brooder who’s a drummer and, Lady Bird finds out, a not-ideal boyfriend in ways utterly different from Danny.