“Lady Bird” is the kind of movie that reminds you why you love movies. Gentle, lovingly-made, affecting to the very end, full of heart and humor — it’s the very best of what stories can do. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig (“Mistress America”) in her solo directorial debut, “Lady Bird” is a coming of age story about Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan, “Loving Vincent”), a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento. Lady Bird (the name Christine gave herself and insists everyone call her) is bright and passionate, with a studied flair for the dramatic. We follow her through her final year of school, as she navigates first love, friendship problems and family relationships. The rise and fall of each new struggle is punctuated with all the classic high school milestones: homecoming, the school play, college applications, prom.
The plot is by-the-numbers teen movie, but that’s really not important. The details are the crux of “Lady Bird,” the reason why it reaches into your heart and squeezes tight. Gerwig observes deeply, capturing every character’s faults and vulnerabilities with a devastating precision. It all feels so painfully true, every line of dialogue feels like something you might hear in real life. So much of the movie feels like it was ripped straight out of a memory. Like the boy who never emotes above a flat deadpan, brings Howard Zinn books to parties and judges Lady Bird for not rolling her own cigarettes. Or the drama teacher who gets way too into the play they’re performing. Or the way the teenagers go from one parking lot to another because they don’t have anyplace cooler to hang out. It’s all so specific, and yet so perfectly evocative of a place and time.
The core of the movie lies in Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother Marion, a fiercely loving but perennially disappointed woman, played by Laurie Metcalf (“Toy Story 3”). Gerwig captures the mother-daughter dynamic perfectly, the way they oscillate from horrible screaming fights to complete contentment in the blink of an eye. Lady Bird wants her mother to like her, just the way she is, but Marion thinks she can be better — less melodramatic, more thoughtful, more considerate of how hard Lady Bird’s parents try to give her everything she needs. “All I want is for you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be,” Marion tells Lady Bird as they’re shopping for prom dresses. “What if this is the best version?” Lady Bird responds, her dress half unzipped, washed out by the harsh fluorescents, her shoulders slumped.
Lady Bird is not a perfect person. She leaves her loyal friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”), for a richer, more popular girl, Jenna (Odeya Rush, “The Hunter’s Prayer”). She cheats in her math class, and she snacks on communion wafers like crackers (“They’re not consecrated or anything,” she insists). She insults her parents over and over, every time she asks her father to drop her off a block away from school so nobody sees their car, and every time she lies about where she lives. Lady Bird wants nothing more than to leave Sacramento, to go to a big east coast city “where culture is.” It’s a dream that hurts her family who feel that nothing they work for is ever enough for Lady Bird. It hurts Lady Bird too, when they insist she doesn’t have the talent or drive to see that dream through. But it’s okay that Lady Bird isn’t perfect. Nobody in this movie is — but they’re trying their very best to be better.
There’s a scene towards the end, when Lady Bird meets with a nun at her school to go over her college application essays. “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah says, to the shock of Lady Bird who wants nothing more than to get as far away from her hometown as possible. “I guess I pay attention,” Lady Bird says with a shrug. The sister replies: “Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” It’s a sentiment that guides the whole of “Lady Bird.” Like the character herself, this is a movie that pays attention, a movie that’s full of love. It cares deeply about the nuances of people’s lives and hearts, relentlessly kind and heartbreakingly honest. It’s funny without ever being mean, smart without any pretension, sad without any manipulation. “Lady Bird” is never ostentatious or overdone. It opts instead for a gentle kind of earnestness, and as a result it’s a quiet triumph. We’re so lucky to have it.