That Greta Gerwig’s debut as a writer-director is a coming-of-age autobiographical set in 2002 might prompt an aghast realisation that high school nostalgia cinema can now be set in the 21st century – though, the gap between its era and its production is three years longer than that of American Graffiti. Gerwig, one of the brightest spark actresses of her generation, has earned co-writing credits on a couple of her films, but here lets Saoirse Ronan appear as her onscreen avatar – while gifting the terrific, lately-underused Laurie Metcalf a plum role as her mother.
Opening with a waspish Joan Didion quote about Sacramento, California, the film follows Christine McPherson, who not only insists parents and friends call her Lady Bird but designs posters and logos for the name, through her last year at high school. She is determined to go to college on the East Coast – which, as it happens, was the destination of the equivalent character in the Modesto-set American Graffiti – but her mother, a psychotherapist at a drop-in clinic, rules this out from the first, partially from control freak smotheriness and partially from an understanding of how bad the family’s finances are with genial Dad (Tracy Letts) laid off and graduate adopted son Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) only working at a supermarket. In Catholic School, Lady Bird skitters somewhat – callously ditching her plus-sized best pal Julie (Beanie Feldstein) to hang around with richer princess Jenna (Odeya Rush), having relationships with theatre kid Danny (Lucas Hedges) and muso Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) who have their own hang-ups, appearing in a school production of Merrily We Roll Along, working surprisingly hard on her grades, experimenting with personality traits as much as she does with her hair and outfits, and generally being a fascinating, endearing, credible pain in the neck teenager. She has some things in common with Max Fischer and Tracy Flick, but it’s also possible Lady Bird – and Gerwig – saw Rushmore and Election when they came out in the late 1990s, and took their leads as possible role models.
When Lady Bird is arguing with her mother, sympathy see-saws … since neither can leave anything alone, and any moment of tenderness gets spoiled while distractions like a messy bedroom take up conversational space that needs to be devoted to serious issues. Ronan and Metcalf are perfect as people you’d like, but be infuriated by – and the film takes care to show the hurt Lady Bird and her mother dish out unwittingly to people around her. I’d assume that this isn’t 100% Gerwig’s story – unless her Sacramento school was really insane enough not to cast her in lead roles in their theatre productions – but a lot of the details ring true, from girls bingeing on communion wafers (‘they’re not consecrated’) to the casually-dropped name of a cool hangout Lady Bird assumes is a club which turns out to be a car park. Even the broad gags have a melancholy edge – like the priest/football coach drafted in to direct The Tempest after the usual drama teacher (Stephen Henderson) cracks up, and treating the whole thing like a football match by chalking incomprehensible plays on a board.
At 90 minutes, it moves at a clip – so that sub-plots about all the minor characters are lingered on just long enough for us to register (eg: Julie’s crush on a maths teacher, Miguel’s knuckling down to getting a job) even as the heroine doesn’t quite take them in. A coda set in New York is almost like a trailer for a sequel, but has its own interesting take on the newly-reinvented student Christine. However, if Gerwig wants to make this an expanded cinematic universe, could we please have a Beanie Feldstein musical next?