Minutes into Lady Bird and the rapid-fire change of scenario and location pulls you into the curiously innocent world of the 2002 Sacramento, USA. While not a film about how the plot could have been solved with a smartphone, Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut is a love letter to a time not long gone: the era just before the smartphone, 9/11 fresh on the American mind, and suburban anxiety just beginning to simmer.
The film sprints and lunges, particularly in the first quarter, setting the stage for a high-school senior’s moment-to-moment frustrations and gags. Fall musicals, hot boys, spring plays, hotter boys, virginity, and college acceptance letters: the teenage girl coming-of-age stuff is all there. However, Gerwig’s period piece carefully, if not perfectly, captures the not-so-cool girl brushing shoulders with people, concepts, and scenarios she thinks are cool, reaching for them, and often falling short. That hip guy is a shit head; that school is way too difficult to get into; that nerdy friend is exactly that: a friend.
Saoirse Ronan’s titular role as Lady Bird, and her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf, come together in familiar shouting matches, inside-voice matches, and a few sugar-sweet confrontations. Their mother-daughter relationship hovers around the film, pulling heart-strings and tingling the stomach with anxiety. It’s the most central joint, surrounded by a simple wheel of adopted siblings, an older, kindhearted father, and an array Catholic School girls and authority figures. The friction caused by this machination of characters runs hot throughout the movie, but is trailed by more normal, day-to-day sequences, so as to not place too much revelation and meaning on a particular climax.
The anxieties of a high school girl, in dealing with her superiors and peers, come and go quickly, sometimes never materializing at all. There is a freedom in Lady Bird’s willingness to try new things, to be entirely unaware of a certain subculture or musical genre, or freely apply to multiple Ivy League schools as a sub-par student. With Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig dances her characters across a tight rope, effortlessly balancing between nostalgia for a recent decade and taut, humorous realism.
Lady Bird is playing now across theaters, including the Brooklyn Academy of Music.