No animal symbolizes escape and freedom better than a bird. The notion for earthbound dreamers that one could spring into the air and fly away to follow dreams or escape oppressors is self-indulgent in its safeness. It’s also a routine dream for a teenager. It is easy to see why rebellious, impatient Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan capturing that awkward space just before adulthood with easy brilliance) has renamed herself “Lady Bird.” When she introduces herself as such, she inspires curious pause from teachers at her Catholic high school, easy acceptance from her only friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein elevating the sidekick role to modest heights) but weird glances from outsiders. Her frustrated mother (Laurie Metcalf diving into her beefiest role in a long time) tries to accommodate her daughter by calling her Lady Bird, but slips to “Christine” during those moments when her begotten grinds her nerves, which is often.
The central conflict of writer-director Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird lies in the space where restless children want to hurry toward adulthood. That it takes place in the suburbs of Sacramento, “the Midwest of California,” as Lady Bird calls it, makes her urgency all the more pronounced. Placing her in Catholic school, even more so. Then there are crushes in school (alternately played by two other expert young actors, Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet) who have their own lessons to teach. Meanwhile, though she may not be a particularly strong student (her school adviser cracks up when Lady Bird simply mentions Yale), the film never condescends to any of her dreams, be they falling in love or wishing to surround herself with kindred spirits in someplace like New York City.
Lady Bird is an incredibly sensitive movie that isn’t playing characters to be laughed at from some high and mighty distance. They are made earthy and relatable. Augmenting it, is a magical soundtrack by Jon Brion that is as fittingly dynamic as the movie — from bouncily orchestral to simple but sweet acoustic guitar work. Then there is the unobtrusive cinematography by Sam Levy, which also has moments of fancy in overhead shots but can also keep a distance in movingly dramatic scenes that allow the actors all the space they need to perform, which may be a bonus about having an actress at the helm of the film.
Following two exemplary collaborations co-writing scripts with Noah Baumbach (Frances Ha reveals Noah Baumbach’s luminous lighter touch; Mistress America explores the power of friendship beyond ego with endearment ), Gerwig makes her debut as a director, and it’s a tremendous work in its restraint and dynamism. As it is with the highs and lows of teenage life, Lady Bird features incredible scenes of catharsis and anguish that vacillate extremely between humor and heartache, yet work so completely. It’s a balance that Gerwig walks with a great, assured quality and bodes well for a promising career as a filmmaker ahead.
Lady Bird runs 93 minutes and is Rated R. Opens Friday, November 17, in our Miami area at AMC Aventura 24, the Coral Gables Art Cinema, O Cinema Miami Beach and South Beach Regal 18 Miami Beach. Further north, in Broward County, it opens at the Classic Gateway Theatre. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. A24 Films Invited us to a preview screening for the purpose of this review.