High Note: Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird Soars

Lady Bird, the debut directorial effort from indie darling Greta Gerwig, is instantly a top-five film of 2017. Maybe even top-three. It’s that good. Filmed in the twilit hues of the California magic hour, this loosely autobiographical coming-of-age tale marks Gerwig as an artist with equal talent and creative force — originality, spunk and heart — on either side of the camera.

The story is nothing more or less than a girl’s senior year of high school. It probes with humor, warmth and depth all of the following: a volatile mother-daughter relationship, the financial strains of college, high school theater, the navigation and pursuit of authentic friendship, the navigation and pursuit of one’s authentic self, class conflict, sexual tension, the special angst of the early aughts.

Telltale signposts will be familiar to any millennial who attended high school — in particular, Catholic high school — during that time. Immaculate Heart, the Sacramento prep school where Lady Bird McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) wanders and rebels, is bedecked with fashion trends, “We Remember 9/11” signage and cultural signifiers that feel ripped from 2002. One of Lady Bird’s romantic interests is a boy named Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) who asserts his radical status by rolling his own cigarettes and toting Howard Zinn’s The People’s History of the United States. It’s perfect. And it’s an eye for these details that make this Sacramento world feel so rich and real. Note: Apologists for the late-’90s Dave Matthews ballad “Crash into Me” will be delighted to learn of its enthusiastic support by the characters (and presumably, the filmmaker).

Opening with a quote from Joan Didion about Sacramento’s blandness, the film becomes a sort of ode to Gerwig’s hometown. Though Lady Bird calls Sacramento “the Midwest of California,” her love for its urban terrain and its natural beauty (and the people it produced!) abides. To a huge degree, Lady Bird argues, we are defined by where we come from. And that’s a good thing, a thing to savor.

Gerwig is every bit the wit that she revealed herself to be in 2012’s Frances Ha, the marvelous black-and-white indie that she wrote and starred in. Here, the scenes are alive with awkwardness and naturalism. Only once or twice does the humor feel off, as when a JV football coach assumes directorial duties of the high school play. Other moments, as when Lady Bird’s best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) auditions for the fall musical with a rendition of the church song “Make Me a Channel of Your Peace,” are laugh-out-loud funny.

But most searingly successful of all are Lady Bird’s scenes with her mom (Laurie Metcalf, famously the voice of Andy’s Mom in the Toy Story franchise). The relationship is hot to the touch and hormonally charged, reminiscent of other teenage-parent dramas you’ve seen before. But these scenes — thanks to the writing and the actors’ chemistry — are electric, both tense and uproariously funny. In the very first scene, Lady Bird and her mom go from tearfully finishing an audio tape of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath to shouting about college prospects in the span of 30 seconds. Then, in a move that is pure Gerwig — shocking, funny, painfully plausible — Lady Bird leaps from the moving car.

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