Teenagers are awful.
It’s something that everyone can agree on, even teenagers themselves. An entire genre of film exists to offer explanations why, to understand what makes these bratty, self-possessed almost-adults tick. Of all the “coming-of-age” films out there, countless at this point, there isn’t one quite like Lady Bird.
The titular character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, is the kind of teenager at risk of becoming a millennial stereotype. A Hannah Horvath-in-training, Lady Bird is deeply frustrated by her humble Sacramento living and Catholic high school education. She craves “Culture” with a capital C, desperate to travel to the East Coast for college. Holding her back from her New York dreams is her quirk-filled family, particularly her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Marion has her own frustrations; her sensitive husband Larry (Tracy Letts) is unemployed and clinically depressed, her family is barely getting by financially and her daughter is impossible to figure out. Of course, a teenager like Lady Bird can’t comprehend anything outside of her limited scope. She ultimately learns the benefits of expanding that scope, although it takes some genuinely funny and moving steps to get there.
It’s a credit to Greta Gerwig’s excellent direction and screenplay that her title character isn’t a complete nightmare. Lady Bird may be absurd and pretentious, but Gerwig holds her accountable, offering up opposing forces that keep from the brink of being insufferable. Sacramento, a hellscape in Lady Bird’s eyes, is modest and utterly charming through Gerwig’s lens, with Lady Bird being the wet noodle. Her family, friends and awful boyfriends (first Lucas Hedges, then Timothée Chalamet) often act as audience surrogates: baffled, amused and frustrated by her. Her loved ones, with their own charms and defects, challenge Lady Bird’s worst impulses, inching her closer to a more honest understanding of herself.
No one does that more than Lady Bird’s long-suffering mother Marion. Lady Bird offers one of the most complex depictions of a mother-daughter relationship that I’ve ever seen on film. The two are unable to communicate, held back by achingly similar contradictions in behavior. A reaction to her own struggles, Marion is fiercely protective of her daughter, so much so that she’ll keep her at arms length. Lady Bird insists that her mother hates her, and yet is more than willing to defend her when she isn’t around. The strain is tempered by moments of honest warmth and levity, in car rides and thrift store shopping trips, offering glimpses of what they could be if they just let their walls down. When their relationship seems fractured beyond repair at the film’s climax, it sparks a profound change in Lady Bird that Gerwig had been deftly and organically building to the entire film. With one last-ditch effort at pretense making her literally ill, Lady Bird finally finds her truth.
Lady Bird has an excellent cast, led by a luminous Saoirse Ronan. The two-time Oscar nominee – well on her way to a third – is just as responsible as her auteur for making Lady Bird such a likable character. Even in her character’s most obnoxious moments, Ronan lets the facade slip just enough to reveal the youthful charm and insecurity that drives her. It’s an intelligent, masterful performance that many will find difficult to resist. Laurie Metcalf is equally incredible as Lady Bird’s mom, conveying decades of exhaustion and disappointment alongside unconditional love with one look at her aloof daughter. They make a compelling, volatile duo, a Shirley MacClaine and Debra Winger for the Snapchat generation. Rounding out a superlative group are Lucas Hedges, who tugs the heartstrings in a not-so-surprising but moving character arc, and Timothée Chalamet (Call Me by Your Name), who manages to surpass Lady Bird in pretentiousness and still be a sensitive joy to watch.
Lady Bird is a triumph, a coming-of-age story that feels real. It tackles the final stretch of adolescence with humor, compassion and startling insight into what teenagers want, even when they don’t know themselves. Most filmmakers spend half their careers searching for truths half as profound as what Greta Gerwig shares in her directorial debut. It is a remarkable feat that the Academy would be foolish to ignore.