If the short-lived and little seen sub-subgenre of low-budget American independent filmmaking called, regrettably, mumblecore had a breakout star, Greta Gerwig was unquestionably it.
A lot of hugely talented filmmakers emerged from that movement (an ironic noun to use for a group of films that primarily consisted of sessile young white people sitting around talking; "apartment" might be a better one) to do fantastic work—including, among others, Lynn Shelton, Mark and Jay Duplass, Joe Swanberg, Ry Russo-Young, Aaron Katz, Amy Seimetz, and, arguably, Lena Dunham. But Gerwig was the one who really leaped off the screen. In an aesthetic milieu that prized prosaic improvised language and bedraggled naturalism, she had the magnetism that makes real-life stars into movie stars.
It was no surprise, then, that she wound up becoming an excellent screen actor in big-deal movies. (Her performance in Mike Mills's 20th Century Women was especially dazzling.)
What is startling, though, is the trick she pulls off with Lady Bird, her debut as a solo writer/director, transferring the radiant, unruly inner life that enlivens her best on-screen work into a story that wraps profound insights about class in the sheep's clothing of a sweet, sad, funny coming-of-age story. The film owes a debt to Wes Anderson—but all the clean design and clever dialogue is in the service of heavy emotional inquiry.
And the boys are the supporting cast.
Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, never better) is a teenage girl striving to find a self she can live in while stranded in moribund, lower-middle-class Sacramento, "the Midwest of California." Her efforts begin with that name, which she bestowed upon herself—Christine was too normal—and loudly demands that everyone call her at all times. The crusade also manifests in the form of hair dye, petty crime, habitual lying, sexual experimentation with unworthy boys, and musical theater.
It's all familiar territory for a high-school kid on a quest to evince originality and individualism (wincingly so for some of us—the all-Sondheim audition montage is BRUTAL), and is reliably hilarious to witness. But Lady Bird's unrelenting desperation to be something, anything, other than what she is also carries the pong of futility, of cliché, and she knows it, which makes the threat of despair a very real enemy.
Though Lady Bird will perform for anyone, the only audience she truly wants is her exasperated, judgmental, sharp-tongued mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf, almost certainly the greatest living actress). Their verbal battles are hilarious, their stalemates wrenching, their tender moments intoxicating. It's an exquisitely observed portrait of a mother and daughter so intractably at war that they can't see how close they are until it's too late.
But their view is blocked because the entire landscape of their relationship is circumscribed by economic circumstance. If Marion weren't stuck working double shifts as a nurse, if her husband (Tracy Letts, commandingly benign) could find work, if they could only live in one of the nice houses, if financial sacrifice—and the inherent shame and submission it brings—weren't at the center of every decision the family had to confront, then Lady Bird's quest would be a very different story.
Lucky for us, it's not.