Greta Gerwig knows there are no new stories. The actress, writer and now director has made roughly the same movie many times over in her decade-young career, about an educated and white 20-something feeling lost in the world and trying their best to find a way forward. But from starring in 2000s mumblecore films like “Hannah Takes the Stairs” (2007) and “Nights and Weekends” (2008) to starring in and co-writing the triumphant “Frances Ha” (2012) with her now-partner Noah Baumbach, Gerwig has demonstrated the range not only the genre holds, but that she herself holds as an artist. With her directorial debut “Lady Bird” (2017), Gerwig tackles a familiar story with the steady hand and unified vision of someone who’s been there before, and the result — overflowing with laughter, pain and love — is anything but stale.
“Lady Bird” follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by an impeccable, pink-haired Saoirse Ronan, through her senior year at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. The way Lady Bird bickers with her overworked mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) about college, money and clothes is familiar to anyone who has ever been 17, and Marion’s response — in turns loving, passive-aggressive and angry — speaks to most parents’ experiences with teenage angst. Lady Bird’s kind, soft father Larry (Tracy Letts) struggles with depression and loses his job, compounding the family’s lower-middle-class struggles with money, while Lady Bird focuses on the typical milestones of first love, lost virginity and senior prom.
Lady Bird’s sense of where she wants to be in life is vague at best, but it can be best described as “anywhere but Sacramento.” “I want to go where culture is, like New York. Or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire where writers live in the woods,” she gripes to her mother, just moments before melodramatically opening the door of their moving car and rolling out, breaking her arm. This genre of quippy, funny dialogue could easily turn a character like Lady Bird into nothing more than a wise-for-her-years manic pixie mouthpiece, but Gerwig’s writing manages to reveal the human heart and mind beneath all the talking. This humanity may seem like a base requirement for a film, yet so many miss the mark that “Lady Bird” deserves the credit.
Despite going through the usual motions of a young woman’s coming-of-age, “Lady Bird” sets itself apart from many other bildungsromane for its approach to issues of socio-economic status and class. In an early scene, Lady Bird tells her theater crush Danny (Lucas Hedges) that she lives on the “wrong side of the tracks.” When he later meets her parents for the first time, he remarks that there are, indeed, actual tracks separating his part of town from hers. The moment is both comic and deeply sad, as we see Marion’s face fall realizing her daughter is ashamed of where she’s from. Lady Bird later lies about where she lives to cool girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), a moment of uncomfortable identification for anyone who has tried desperately to become someone else.
As much as the film’s central conflict is about these economic differences and Lady Bird affording an expensive East Coast private college (hello, Tufts), the real struggle is one between mother and daughter and thus between the past and the future, between staying true to who you are and becoming who you want to be. These are big themes that can easily veer into moralizing and gooey sentimentality, but “Lady Bird” is packed with enough wit and unironic enthusiasm, not to mention artfully directed visual sequences, to keep it smart and true. That’s not to say you won’t bawl your eyes out between laughs: “Lady Bird” pulls at all the heartstrings that tie up our feelings about friendship, family and the transition into adulthood.
With “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig hasn’t put on a hat and called herself a director, nor has she reinvented the wheel; she has deliberately and masterfully presented her vision of a young woman’s life with the kind of care and affection someone has for a best friend. In an industry that’s still dominated by male direction and blockbuster sequels, that feels utterly essential.