On the surface, Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” looks to be a coming-of-age story about a difficult, perhaps somewhat unlikable teenage girl growing up in Sacramento. But Gerwig’s directorial debut is more challenging than it seems at first glance.
The film, which premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, works as a story of a teenager’s final year in high school, her fraught relationship with her mother and her reticent sexual experiences, not unlike “Diary of a Teenage Girl.” But Gerwig is going for something deeper. She defies what we typically get from a complicated female protagonist and asks us to examine our expectation that a young woman needs to be, essentially, nice before she can carry a film.
Saoirse Ronan plays Lady Bird, a pink-haired middle-class kid living in a suburb slightly less well-to-do than the rich kids in more exclusive homes across the tracks. She has two parents and her own room and a comfortable life, certainly nothing to be ashamed of. She has a kind, supportive father (Tracy Letts), a caring though demanding mother (Laurie Metcalf) and is lucky enough to have the luxury to pursue her wildest dreams.
Lady Bird is difficult to like, and maybe that’s the point. Gerwig has written a main character who’s angry, frustrated and aching to have people recognize the genius that brews just below the surface. She doesn’t quite know what that genius is, just that it’s there. She wants out of her normal life, out of her friendship with an unpopular girl, out of the Sacramento she regards as crappy because it isn’t San Francisco or Los Angeles. Because of the fire that burns within her, she’s trying to fly too far and too fast out of the nest.
In that way, “Lady Bird” feels a lot like a female version of Mike Nichols’ “The Graduate,” in which Benjamin Braddock dangled at the precipice of adulthood and proceeded to screw up his cushy life with a single-minded devotion to drifting in all the wrong directions. So to does Lady Bird push back at the confines of good behavior and normalcy.
“The Graduate” arrived in the tumultuous year of 1967, when youth counterculture was intent on kicking down societal conventions at the same moment the silent majority was about to install Nixon’s vise-grip on actual power. Exactly 50 years later it’s wearying but instructive to see the same sort of opposing forces collide once again.
But Lady Bird is not presented here to be scolded or judged. Nor is she here to be changed or corrected. She’s simply here, she’s not budging, and that’s that. She will succeed or fail in her own way, on her own terms.
It’s the clash between her unyielding terms and the equally obdurate terms of her mother that spark conflict. Her mother, a nurse, has specific expectations of who her daughter should be and has a hard time grappling with the woman she is turning out to be. If Lady Bird can take everything that her mother wants her to be and go the opposite direction, maybe she can figure out who she is.
As women, we’re raised to be nice before anything else. Whatever fervor or restlessness or necessary combative ambition we might have is often tamped down under the guise of being nice and compliant. So it’s refreshing to see that Lady Bird isn’t burdened by those self-imposed restraints. Whatever she ultimately chooses to do with her life will have very little to do with any desire to be nice.
Gerwig co-wrote “Frances Ha,” but now that she’s in control, her brilliance is fully unleashed. Her instincts as a director are so good, “Lady Bird” should launch an exciting new phase of her career — directing her own screenplays and branching out to direct the work of other screenwriters if she chooses. One thing Hollywood desperately needs is more female voices, more female storytellers, so it’s exhilarating to witness a debut this assured.
Gerwig chose her star after hearing Saoirse Ronan read from the script for just two minutes. Sometimes a role fits an actress so well there’s no need to deliberate about it. Together they have created one of the most intriguing, infuriating and magnetic characters in recent memory. Maybe it would have been safer to aim for a less complicated, less vexing portrayal than the Lady Bird we meet — but then it would have been another movie like so many others. It would not have been the statement Gerwig wanted to make.
“Lady Bird” is an impressive, challenging and buoyantly entertaining work. Seeing it so soon after my own daughter left the nest for NYU to become her own Lady Bird, I’m especially glad for her that a movie like this exists — a movie that honestly chronicles a young woman’s strong-willed struggle to take charge of the aspirations in her head, the turbulence in her soul and the irrepressible passion in her heart.