“Anyone who talks about California hedonism,” Joan Didion once said, “has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” That attitude would be heartily endorsed by Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior and the central character in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird. The title refers to a nickname Christine chose for herself, and the fact that her choice is both pretentious and kind of endearing perfectly expresses the duality of her character.
Christine is an indifferent student with no real accomplishments, but she’s sure of one thing—she’s destined for bigger and better things than can be had in her home town. Like many young people, she looks to college as the magic portal to her dream life, and thus refuses to consider practical choices like one of the many campuses of the University of California. No, she wants to attend a college “where the culture is,” which to her means New York City, with Connecticut and New Hampshire as backups if the Big Apple doesn’t work out.
Besides her mediocre academic record, there’s another problem with Christine’s plans—her father (Tracy Letts) has lost his job and money’s tight in the McPherson household. Her older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) is also living at home (he graduated from U.C. Berkeley but the only job he could find is as a barista) while her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) works double shifts as a nurse trying to stay ahead of the bills. Christine isn’t exactly impoverished, mind you—she lives with two parents in a perfectly nice suburban home and attends a Catholic high school where the teachers and staff care about the students—but she’s aware of the class divides in her town, and like many teenagers is self-centered and blithely uninterested in practicalities like what things actually cost.
The best thing about Lady Bird is how true to life it feels. It’s not the wish fulfillment kind of high school movie where everyone is beautiful and good at everything (the musical audition scene is a real gem precisely because the actors sound like none-too-talented high school students), but a close examination of what it feels like to be a teenage girl. It’s also a very female-centric movie, with Metcalf delivering a strong performance as Christine’s beleaguered Mom, who is almost as wracked with contradictions as her daughter. She loves Christine but is also exasperated by her, and wants the best for her but is also fearful of what may happen if she ventures too outside familiar territory. Lois Smith has a nice turn as Sister Sarah Joan, headmistress of Christine’s school, as do Beanie Feldstein as Christine’s best friend Julie and Odeya Rush as the school’s leading mean girl. On the male side, besides Letts, Stephen Henderson makes a strong impression in a small role as the drama teacher, as do Lucas Hedges and Kyle Scheible as two boys Christine dates.
Lady Bird is an astonishingly assured first film from Gerwig, herself a Sacramento native. Most remarkable are her sense of pace and her instinct for showing exactly the right amount of a scene to make a point. Lady Bird is also remarkably funny, full of knowing humor that rings true every time. While the film is sympathetic to Christine, it doesn’t fully endorse her point of view—instead, it offers a more mature view that honors her parents and teachers in a way that’s only possible from someone looking back on their teenage years rather than living them in the present. | Sarah Boslaugh