It’s always an unanswered question when a well-known actor or actress chooses to step behind the camera and take up the mantle of director. For every success story (your Charles Laughtons, your Clint Eastwoods, your Orson Welleses), there’s plenty of examples that don’t turn out nearly as well. Prowess in front of the camera doesn’t presuppose prowess behind it. It’s fitting that so many of these actors turned directors tend to focus on character-driven pieces, be they comedy or drama or both. That’s certainly the case for Greta Gerwig, the darling of independent cinema who has made the transition herself to write and direct Lady Bird, slowly making its way across cinemas in the US after a successful debut at the Telluride Film Festival.
Lady Bird refers to the preferred nickname of Christine (Saoirse Ronan), a senior at an all girls Catholic high school in Sacramento, California circa 2003. She has a strained relationship with her overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf) and depressed father (Tracy Letts), as she feels trapped by her school and her city. She wants to go to college on the east coast to change her scenery and her life, but she still has to get through one more year at home. What follows is a pretty typical year in the life of a high school girl, navigating her relationship with her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) and the boys she likes (Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet) as she tries to improve her grades and her standing in life to escape the suffocation of her family. As a lower class girl going to an upper class Catholic school, social and societal pressures can be tough to handle, but Lady Bird has a reserve of determination within her, and won’t go quietly into the night.
The beauty of Lady Bird lies in its authenticity. A quick glance at Gerwig’s biography points to a case of writing what she knows, as she also attended an all girls Catholic school in Sacramento in the early 2000s. While I have no experience with Catholic school myself, it’s clear from the little moments and details that color Lady Bird’s daily life that Gerwig has filled the film to the brim with the sorts of cultural touchstones that are universal to those with that shared experience, evidenced by the little audience chuckles as she endures the various rituals that come from attending a school like that. It helps that Lady Bird is a rather ordinary and relatable girl, brought to life with such exacting vigor. Ronan continues to be one of the most captivating and reliable actresses working today, and in her first major role since receiving an Academy Award nomination for her breathtaking turn in Brooklyn, she is so profoundly and effortlessly genuine that she never feels like an actress playing a role. It’s a tricky part; she has to be rebellious but not too much so, the sort of person who leaves an impression, but isn’t some caricature of teenage angst. She listens to Dave Matthews Band unironically. She’s a person with layers and shades to her personality.
Metcalf, on the other hand, is the sort of actress easy to take for granted. She remains most famous for her work on Roseanne, and the working class spirit of that show sets her up well. It’s a performance not unlike that of Annette Bening in last year’s 20th Century Women. She works double shifts at a psychiatric hospital to support her family, especially after her husband loses his job. She’s not always the most loving presence in the home, but she’s not needlessly cruel, even if some might believe that’s the case. It could be considered a thankless role under some circumstances (she doesn’t get a lot of the script’s comedy), but it allows her to unlock the uneasy balance between motherly love and disappointment and economic anxiety and social status and all of the things that a lower class family has to contend with.
This is where Gerwig succeeds with flying colors, producing a script so full of warmth and empathy and detail and soul that it comes bursting out of the screen from the first frame to the last. It’s perhaps an unfair comparison, but she’s already giving beau and occasional writing partner Noah Baumbach a run for his money in her first directorial effort. Baumbach is often a much more caustic voice (look no further than his duo of “patriarch behaving badly” films The Squid and the Whale and The Meyerowitz Stories), so they’re operating in different fields, but Lady Bird feels apiece with Frances Ha and Mistress America. Gerwig’s shown a knack for bringing out Baumbach’s madcap side in these films, and while Lady Bird is more subdued than those films, an anarchic heart beats at its core. Put simply, Greta Gerwig can do no wrong. Saoirse Ronan can do no wrong. Laurie Metcalf can do no wrong. Timothee Chalamet can do no wrong. And Lady Bird can do no wrong.