After her relentless on-screen presence playing the same characters in every movie, Greta Gerwig makes her directorial debut. The original screenplay based on her love of home in Sacramento, is what you would expect from the “Mistress America” actress. Yet, somehow with Oscar nominated Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) playing a version of Gerwig, it’s far more immersive and enjoyable. It’s a charming first feature, the best reviewed film of all time according to Rotten Tomatoes scores, filled with beautiful understanding in all areas of family. The assembled supporting cast is quite good, including 2017’s breakout star Timothée Chalamet (“Call Me By Your Name,” “Hostiles”). Yes, it’s another coming-of-age story, with a slightly different angle that manages to be self-reflective for anyone watching.
Sacramento is not where 17-year-old Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson (Ronan) wants to remain after high school. She wants to attend a college on the East Coast, but her dad (Tracy Letts) just lost his job and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) isn’t having it. She’s constantly being told by parents, teachers and recruiters at the Catholic school, that her grades and work ethic would never be enough to get into a prestigious East Coast school. Her senior year is spent focusing on applications, the school’s theater project and boys; specifically, Danny (Lucas Hedges), her first love. On her 18th birthday she buys cigarettes, a lotto ticket and a Playgirl, because she can. That’s how Lady Bird lives her life, one attention getting moment at a time.
There isn’t anything revolutionary about Gerwig’s script or direction. It’s honest, simplistic and she trims all the embellishments. The fact that it doesn’t feel like a first-time effort is one of it’s best achievements. I find what Gerwig does in front of the screen anything but entertaining, although her small role in “Jackie” was her best to date. Behind the camera is a different story and she manages to get memorable performances from some great actors. Ronan completely disappears in this role, behind the pink, bleached hair and West Coast accent. It’s amazing to contrast her work here with “Brooklyn” and she’s very likely looking at another best actress nomination after picking up the first award of the season at the Gotham awards. Letts (“The Lovers”) continues to be a scene stealer with his small role. Metcalf returns to the big screen after almost a decade as a tough mother with a heart of gold, another guaranteed Oscar nomination for the film.
There is a sequence in the third act that raises the film a letter grade, as Lady Bird takes a giant step toward maturity. For most of the film, we watch this immature teenager, so naive in the ways of the world, steamroll towards an epiphany moment. “I want to live through something,” she said. Chalamet is essentially playing James Franco here, as an artist who can’t be bothered with simple things. I found Hedges' performance far more interesting than what he did last year with “Manchester By the Sea.” Gerwig deserves credit for assembling a spectacular ensemble. Ronan makes this work where another actress might go too far in any other direction and cause the audience to turn on the very character we came to see.
Final thought — Gerwig’s directorial debut proves she is better behind the camera while Ronan expands her range on-screen.