“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, is a teen comedy, a mother-daughter story and perhaps the first-ever cinematic valentine to Sacramento. It’s funny, sad, witty, observant and captivating.
Gerwig — best known for writing and acting collaborations with filmmaker Noah Baumbach such as “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” — brings intelligence and offbeat charm to this likable movie.
The story takes place in California’s capital in 2002, where a 9/11-related post-traumatic depression pervades the atmosphere, cellphones are catching on, and the middle class is eroding.
Saoirse Ronan plays Christine McPherson, a smart, headstrong teen who insists on being called Lady Bird.
Lady’s Bird’s forceful personality echoes that of her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse who works extra shifts to keep her middle-class family solvent while Lady Bird’s softer-hearted father, Larry (Tracy Letts), who has his own stresses, looks for work. An older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) rounds out the family.
The story transpires over Lady Bird’s senior year at a Catholic high school, when she falls in love twice — with boy-next-doorish drama-club classmate Danny (Lucas Hedges) and anarchist rocker Kyle (Timothee Chalamet) — and abandons longtime best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) for the richer, cooler Jenna (Odeya Rush).
Longing to leave Sacramento, she constantly quarrels with her judgmental mother, who warns her not to dream beyond her means and is furious when she applies to expensive East Coast colleges.
Though she hasn’t ditched all the cliches of the teen comedy, Gerwig fills the spaces between familiar plot points with funny, original, insightful, emotionally honest material. She applies a satisfying twist to prom night.
Even the minor characters are thoughtfully conceived, with last names on the cast roster and useful bits of back stories.
Gerwig enhances the film with images of Sacramento, where she herself grew up. In one of many winning one-liners, Lady Bird calls the city the “Midwest of California.”
Ronan’s superb comic performance is shaded with feeling. She shines both as an every-teen and as a reflection of her character’s place, time and obstinate but embraceable self.
Metcalf, too, is terrific, both entertaining and saddening as a mom who seems able to express her love for her daughter only by criticizing her.
The two are completely credible as the temperamentally similar — but don’t tell their characters that — mother and daughter.
The opening scene, in which their bickering prompts Lady Bird to jump out of a moving car, is worthy of a time capsule.
Additional memorable moments include an athletic coach directing a Shakespeare play; a school counselor erupting into laughter when Lady Bird mentions Yale; and Marion and Lady Bird touring expensive homes, for kicks.
The movie ends a bit too sweetly, but that’s just a quibble about one of the year’s best comedies.
Three and a half stars
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges
Written and directed by: Greta Gerwig
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes