To answer your first question, Lady Bird has nothing to do with the former FLOTUS. This is a beguiling coming-of-age movie, not a political drama about the Lyndon Johnson administration. A high-school senior named Christine (Saoirse Ronan) just insists that her friends and family call her by that nickname because of its distinctive implications. The truth is, Christine isn’t that unique. She struggles to fit in like any other college-bound girl. She’s a drama queen. She’s a smart ass. She has acne.
But don’t see Lady Bird, the antithesis to big-budget blockbusters like Thor: Ragnarok, because of the main character’s excruciatingly relatable appeal. Do it for this knowing, witty exchanges such as this one: “Do you like me?” Lady Bird asks her mom (Laurie Metcalf) during one particularly fraught moment. “Of course I love you,” her mom replies. No. “But do you like me?” (This is where my own my mom would snap, “Not right now.”)
The wise cliché is to write what you know. So for her solo screenwriting and directing debut, Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha, Mistress America) chose to capture her white-girl, almost-middle class high school experience. Lady Bird is desperate to get out of her mundane confines in Sacramento, California in 2002 — i.e., “the Midwest of California.” (Hey now!) To do that, she must first survive senior year at a Catholic school. Her overworked nurse mom drives her, and drives her hard. Her dad (Tracy Letts) is the sympathetic good cop yet has grown distant since losing his job. She nurses a few misguided crushes (Timothee Chalamet, Manchester by the Sea’s Lucas Hedges). She drops her best friend (Beanie Feldstein, sister to one Jonah Hill) and still longs to be part of the cool crowd. Her goal is to attend a cool New York liberal arts college, which seems doable in the wake of 9/11.
This is all typical post-John Hughes coming-of-age fare, a close relative to last year’s The Edge of Seventeen. But Lady Bird feels remarkably and delightfully fresh. The secret sauce lies in the completely authentic performances. Just two years removed from playing a demure (and married) 1950s Irish lass in Brooklyn, Ronan shows her incredible versatility as a whimsical American teen. Her Christine/Lady Bird has the required angst and heart for the challenging role. She glares at her mom with the right amount of side-eye. Metcalf matches her word for word. Even when she barks at her daughter, the vulnerability is close to the surface. I expect major awards consideration for both of them.
Gerwig made an inspired choice to set her film in 2002 — as much as we don’t want to believe it, enough time has gone by to consider this is an astute period piece. She nails the details, from the posters in Lady Bird’s untidy bedroom to her DIY red-dye job. (I’m a stickler about this stuff.) The music is also, well, pitch-perfect. Of course Lady Bird has unbridled affection for the 1996 Dave Matthews Band ballad “Crash Into Me.” Of course. This song was the soundtrack of the suburbs in the late ’90s. Ah, the memories.
Not that the joys and pains of teen self-discovery is limited to the early aughts. The awkward make-out sessions, the exaggeration of your family’s financial stats, the giggling with friends are all universal commonalities in any era. Everyone at that age is restless to move out and move on — until the moment it actually happens. Maybe the typical suburban white girl didn’t rough it in conventional ways, but she still struggled in her own skin.
Gerwig, the Sacramento native who’s now 34 years old and an established actress, embraces this fact. That’s why she treats all her characters with respect — and gives them droll one-liners when necessary. She has enough distance to step away from the madness and still marvel at the way she was, the way we all were. Yeah, you’ll love Lady Bird. And like it.
(Lady Bird opens in theaters Friday, November 3)
Also published on Medium.