“LADY BIRD” — 3 stars — Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith; R (language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying); in general release
Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” isn’t a story about learning to love where you come from — it's about realizing you’ve loved it all along.
Gerwig’s film follows Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a quirky high school senior completing her last few courses in the school of hard knocks in preparation for her pending adulthood. Lady Bird is an aspiring East Coast elitist, stuck in that awful stage of adolescence where she's aware of her own intelligence and the strangeness of the adult world but lacks the wisdom to understand them. On a drive with her world-weary mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), Lady Bird declares, “I wish I could live through something,” and longs to leave her backward Sacramento home for the “culture” of New York City.
The time has come to think about college, and Lady Bird wants to go to school in New York, convinced that attending a more cost-friendly local school would be a humiliating fate worse than death. But with her family struggling to get by on her mother's nursing income, since Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) just lost his job, things don’t look good. It also doesn’t help that Lady Bird’s older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) — a University of California, Berkeley, graduate — is currently working at a grocery store.
So maybe it’s fortunate that Lady Bird is distracted by Danny (Lucas Hedges), the dreamboat from her acting class. As they rehearse for performances and participate in acting drills where the first performer to cry wins, she and Danny cultivate a relationship that lasts right up until she discovers her boyfriend has a particular deal-breaking secret. Shortly after that, she moves on to a different boy — a conspiracy theorist wannabe intellectual bass player named Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), who will bring Lady Bird even more pain.
“Lady Bird’s” plot pinballs its protagonist from boyfriend to boyfriend and from her real best friend Julie (played by Beanie Feldstein) to her fake best friend Jenna (played by Odeya Rush). She desperately tries to survive the harsh seas of her teenage years, convinced that all of her problems would be solved if she could just get out of Sacramento.
The film is set in 2002, which technically makes it a period piece, if you can believe it. From time to time, in the background of the primary goings-on, we hear references to war, invasion and the tensions of George W. Bush's first term as president, which fortunately never quite get onto a political soapbox. There’s also a strong religious undertone to the film, which rises to the surface in the form of Lady Bird’s private Catholic school background and plays an important and surprising role in her post-high school life.
“Lady Bird’s” protagonist would be truly insufferable if not for Ronan’s pitch-perfect performance, which imbues her character with just enough quirkiness to let you stomach her naïve snobbery. Just watching Lady Bird awkwardly interact with Danny and Kyle is enough to draw those bittersweet laughs that come from material that hits just a little too close to home on its journey between tragedy and comedy.
Between Ronan’s performance, Gerwig’s wit and a story that finishes in a place that feels more satisfying than you might expect, “Lady Bird” adds up to a journey that encounters plenty of potholes but arrives intact.
“Lady Bird” is rated R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity (in a magazine) and teen partying; running time: 93 minutes.