Coming of age stories are not hard to come by. As more and more filmmakers emerge, having grown up watching films and being armed early on with all the tools to create a movie of their own, it is easy to see how building off what one already knows can lead to so many entries in this genre. The good ones do stand out though and Greta Gerwig’s solo writing and directing debut, Lady Bird, is easily one of the better coming of age stories in some time, in addition to being one of the best comedies of the year. Made with the spirit of a screwball comedy and no doubt influenced by various authors and the many arthouse filmmakers Gerwig has been working with since she started breaking out, here’s a film not too dissimilar from other similar stories, but working well thanks to all involved.
Saoirse Ronan stars as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a high school senior seemingly fed up with living a non-eventful life in Sacramento, CA. She attends a Catholic high school with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and while not a star performer, Lady Bird hopes she can escape her town and attend an East Coast Ivy League college. Other typical pieces fall into place. Lady Bird has loving parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts), with her mom being often being critical, while the dad is softer, though a bit depressed. There’s an older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) who lives at home. A mentor figure in the form of a nun (Lois Smith) also plays a part. And there are the boys at school (Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet) that may affect Lady Bird’s relationship status.
While set in 2002 to reflect Gerwig’s period of time when she was figuring out her next steps, the film may not be entirely autobiographical. However, there is a natural sense of what is going on. Having gone to high school around the same time, it is easy to pick up on the general vibe of the time and how Gerwig relates to other millennial-aged writers who have struggled with or embraced the move into adulthood. However, the film is not reliant on how a specific age group will respond. Change the hairstyles and clothing and the film could fit into any decade of the past fifty years. Lady Bird captures its time well, but I do see a universal appeal here.
A lot of that comes from the confidence in the writing and filmmaking. The film has a propulsive sense of energy, as it is continuously moving the plot forward, while still leaving room for laughs as well as dramatic resonance. It’s impressive, and it also signals just how excellent the pairing of writing and editing is for this film. Where other films linger on specific emotional beats, Lady Bird trusts the audience enough to understand the quick movements to new scenes, following further developments for the story and characters. It’s a great tactic that helps the film not dwell on scenarios seen many times in stories like it. This also creates a unique rhythm to rely on.
An excellent cast, made up of many notable stage actors, further imbues Lady Bird with all the life it needs to fly. Ronan headlines the film with ease. The character functions almost like an anti-hero, given her attitude, but Ronan’s handling of this script keeps her likable and makes her a great sparring partner for the rest of the performers. Most notably, Metcalf is terrific as her mother. Lady Bird is very much a film about mothers and daughters, which creates a wonderful stage for these two to build chemistry on. Letts, another major veteran from the theater, also brings a nice warmth to the film, whenever Lady Bird is not busy trying to adapt to whatever plan she has to infiltrate a new layer of high school. That speaks to the cast that fits into her school life and they are all as effective as they need to be as well.
A lot is going on in this film, and despite my praise of the quick-paced editing style, the movie never feels rushed. Lady Bird is, however, hilarious. While one could claim this to be another comedy-drama about growing up, the balance is indeed in favor of the comedy. The dialogue crackles throughout, but there is plenty to be said for what we see as well. Various expressions and reactions underline the sense of humor that can be found in this film, and while Lady Bird has an authentic feel, it’s not afraid to go for some effective broad comedy as well.
This all comes in service to what the movie is getting at. Gerwig is not creating a new definition for this sort of film, but her take on teenage rebellion is welcome. Lady Bird is incredibly witty, full of sarcasm, but not without poignancy. As the film comes to its close, audiences may be prepared for the big lesson of the film, but it is the bonds that have formed over the course of its runtime that show just how compelling this journey has been. That speaks to the honesty found in Lady Bird, as the movie may not sentimentalize some magical time from the past, but it finds sincerity and heart in the story it aims to tell. Add on that healthy dose of humor and one will see how another top tier coming of age story has arrived.