Millennials and Generation Z-ers have no shortage of great teen movies to call their own. Clueless, Easy A, and especially Mean Girls have all ingrained themselves into pop culture, and will be celebrated by the masses (not to mention quoted ad nauseam) for years to come. But Lady Bird, much like its titular heroine, feels different than its peers. Those movies, great as they are, try to teach lessons to their teenage protagonists and the viewers that relate to them.
But Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut harkens back to the work of John Hughes; this is a film that doesn’t want to impart wisdom on its young characters, but instead seeks to understand them. The result of this endeavor is a film so warm-hearted and lovable that it starts to feel like a great, big, cinematic hug by the time the credits roll.
That, of course, does not mean that Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) couldn’t use a few lessons about how the world works. She constantly fights with her working-class mother (Laurie Metcalf), and fantasizes about attending a fancy school in NYC that her family could never afford. She’s completely ignorant to the hardships that her father (Tracy Letts) faces on a daily basis, and the fact that his job could be taken away from him at any moment. She loves her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) but dreams of hanging out with the rich, popular kids.
And she finds herself in some less-than-wonderful romances with her male peers, first with the naïve but sensitive Danny (Lucas Hedges), and then with Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), an anarchist musician. But Gerwig shows us that these misadventures are just a part of growing up, and that realizing your own ignorance to a situation and emerging a better person from it is as necessary as it is uncomfortable and universal. As viewers follow Lady Bird through her senior year, we never judge her, her friends, or her family, but learn to understand them as the fully developed characters they are. And we laugh (a lot) along the way, too.
While she might be best known for her work in period romances like Brooklyn, Ronan completely disappears into the part of Lady Bird, and not just because she sports red hair and uses an American accent. This performance feels painfully lived in, with Ronan tossing aside the confidence and maturity she’s exhibited in previous roles, and embracing the growing pains that come with high school.
Whether she’s coming on a little too strong while flirting with a boy, or crossing a line during a fight with her mom, Ronan feels so believable in the titular role that it often becomes painful to watch her character make mistakes. She also has killer comedic timing, a skill that her stiffer, previous work prevented her from showing off. There isn’t a single line that falls flat here. As smart as Gerwig’s script is, Lady Bird would never work as a film if its star didn’t bring her A-game. Luckily, Ronan might deliver career-best work or, at the very least, the strongest teen performance since Reese Witherspoon burst onto the scene in Election almost 20 years ago.
Ronan is surrounded by a stellar ensemble, however, whose performances are made all the better by Gerwig’s writing. As the men in her life, Hedges and Chalamet are each given at least one brilliant scene, and a handful of great one-liners. Chalamet, who is bound to make a splash once the LGBTQ+ romance Call Me by Your Name opens, couldn’t be funnier as the self-absorbed faux-philosopher that every high school has. But Gerwig wisely makes his character more than a caricature, and adds little details to his dialogue that make him strangely sympathetic.
Hedges, meanwhile, follows up his Oscar nominated work in Manchester by the Sea with a truly powerful performance that works on every level. First, he shows off impressive, understated comedic chops, delivering his lines with a sense of optimism that feels both sickeningly sweet and oddly charming. But, as his subplot takes a dramatic turn, he delivers what might be the most gut-wrenching line reading of 2017. Without spoiling anything, both he and Ronan are involved in one of the most unexpected yet moving sequences in any recent teen movie, and while his subplot might be resolved at the halfway mark of the film, it serves as the thesis statement for the overall film.
But as great as Ronan and her male co-stars are, Lady Bird really works as a showcase for Laurie Metcalf, one of the most respected character actresses of all time, who might follow up her recent Tony win with some Oscar glory. Metcalf uses her history of sitcom work to her advantage here, rapidly spitting dialogue at Ronan while still relishing every punch line or quip Gerwig gifts her with.
But, much like the film she stars in, Metcalf radiates with a maternal sense of warmth for those around her, and any sequence in which she comforts a character feels unscripted and totally natural. But her best scene is one without any dialogue: an extended shot of her face as she drives and goes on a mental journey, taking the audience with her as they understand every facial tick. Similar to Patricia Arquette’s stunning turn in Boyhood, Metcalf – with Gerwig’s help – turns Lady Bird into a love letter to tough, working class parents that may be flawed human beings but absolutely love their children.
It’s no surprise that Greta Gerwig is funny. Her career is peppered with influential indie comedies, including her iconic work in Frances Ha and Mistress America, both of which announced a new era of dialogue-driven, female-fronted comedies. But the layers found in Lady Bird are astounding, as is the amount of skill she exhibits behind the camera as a director. This is a film that’s great for all the obvious reasons (acting, writing, etc.), but is made even better by the tiny details. For example, the way it accurately captures the awful earnestness of school plays. Or, how it subtly captures the way that class differences influence our lives and friendships, without ever making it the point of the film. And, perhaps most notably, the fact that it uses “Crash” by the Dave Matthews Band three times, with each successive usage feeling more earned than the last. There is just so much to love about Lady Bird that walking away from it unmoved just feels cold and unnatural.
Overall rating: 10 out of 10.
Lady Bird is in select theaters across the country.