Her real name is Christine, but she wants people to call her “Lady Bird.” One name was given to her by her parents, but the other is also her given name, she insists, in the sense that “it was given to me by me.” It’s a funny line, eliciting a laugh from the audience—and the joke also contains the kernel of the whole movie. Lady Bird is the story of a high school girl who yearns to be someone else, somewhere else. The film’s secret is that it knows Lady Bird and everyone around her are pretty remarkable already.
There’s her bubbly best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who likes drama club and has a major crush on their math teacher. Or Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, Danny, who gets the lead roles in all the school plays but hides a secret. Or the teachers at Lady Bird’s Catholic high school—the sister (Lois Smith) who swoons at Kierkegaard and laughs when Lady Bird vandalizes her car with tin cans and “Just Married to Jesus”; the depressed priest who directs the school play and cries a little too easily. Or Lady Bird’s parents, her kindly, out-of-work dad (Tracy Letts) and especially her mother (Laurie Metcalf), who clearly loves her daughter more than anything but is so plagued by inner anger and passive aggression that she somehow can’t bring herself to tell Lady Bird that she looks pretty in her prom dress.
Most remarkable of all is Lady Bird herself. As written by Greta Gerwig and embodied by Saoirse Ronan, she’s a vibrant and complicated character. Lady Bird seems utterly confident, intense, and inescapably herself in every scene—yet beneath all her brashness there’s vulnerability and a deep insecurity that push Lady Bird to try on other lives and other selves in the way that all high school kids do. She gets bad grades and doesn’t seem to excel in anything, though her personality and the way she talks demonstrate a kind of brilliance. Her frustrations with her life might be summed up in an exchange with her mother in which her mother says she just wants Lady Bird to be her best self. Lady Bird asks, her voice full of frustration and a desire to be seen and loved: “What if this is my best self?”
The story of Lady Bird’s coming of age follows a predictable route: there are anxieties about money and embarrassment about living on “the wrong side of the tracks,” first boyfriends, first sexual experiences, disagreements with friends, trying to get in with the cool kids, fights with parents and siblings. But writer-director Gerwig somehow manages to make the whole thing seem completely fresh. That freshness is due in part to Gerwig’s writing, which is almost Shakespearean in its density, each line carrying weight and meaning and humor. Gerwig can illuminate a character with only a few choice lines, and even minor characters like Lady Bird’s brother and his girlfriend seem effortlessly vibrant, fully-fleshed.
The performances are also brilliant—particularly Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe, who play a mother and daughter so realistic and specific you’d swear you overheard a pair just like them arguing over dresses at the thrift shop. The emotional texture of their scenes is deeply layered, whipsawing from tenderness to resentment and back again. Both should be nominated for Oscars for their work in the film, and Gerwig must surely be a frontrunner for original screenplay awards.
“Love and attention,” a nun tells Lady Bird late in the film. “I think they’re related, don’t you?” From its writing and direction to its performances, Lady Bird is a film made with deep attention and love. It’s one of the best movies of the year.