I’ve always been fascinated to see what happens when a prominent actor or actress decides to take a seat behind the camera and make a truly personal artistic statement. From the stunningly dark visuals and spirit of Charles Laughton’s 1955 moody masterpiece “Night of the Hunter” to Clint Eastwood’s moody 1971 thriller “Play Misty for Me,” on down through Tom Hanks’ 1996 showbiz dramedy “That Thing You Do!” and Jason Bateman’s 2013 comedy “Bad Words,” a solid directorial debut offers intriguing insights into their creative process and true passions.
Yet even among these acclaimed and often beloved films, few stand out as more self-assured and personal than indie goddess Greta Gerwig’s current writing-directing debut, “Lady Bird.” Coming off a string of acclaimed cult comedies in which she delivered a series of performances that were giddy, goofy and earnest all at once, it would have been easy to assume that any creation of Gerwig would be a lightweight soufflé.
Surprisingly, her debut film, “Lady Bird,” while seemingly just another coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of 1980s rock and pop music, achieves some serious emotional resonance. Depicting the senior year of a gawky yet cute teenage girl in 1983 Sacramento who calls herself “Lady Bird,” the movie provides a wise and affecting look at teenagers trying to figure their place in the world.
It’s also a powerful portrait of the bond between mothers and daughters and – even rarer – a respectful homage to small-town life and the close emotional connections it can bring.
The movie offers a slice-of-life look at a girl named Christine (Saiorse Ronan) who has renamed herself “Lady Bird” in order to stand out from the crowd both at home and at school. Feeling trapped in nondescript Sacramento, she dreams of fleeing to a college on the East Coast where she can pursue a drama degree and never look back.
But Lady Bird has a few basic problems. First, she doesn’t have the grades to achieve an Ivy League education; second, her plain-Jane and depressed yet caring mom (Laurie Metcalf) feels that any choice that takes Lady Bird out of the area is a deep rejection of her and all that she’s done for the girl. And third, the financially struggling family is hard-pressed to afford any type of college, much less the most elite ones around.
Yet Lady Bird still does her best to walk the line between relatively mild rebellion and being a straight arrow. Along the way, she has to navigate one close teenager’s life in the closet, whether to trust another boy enough to be her first sexual experience, and figure out how far to let her freak flag fly.
These are universally touching matters, ones that nearly everyone faces at some point in their life while growing up in America. Gerwig, however, does a remarkable job of making these eminently relatable and often funny moments resonate with everyone even as much of its beauty and humor are rooted in the odd details of life in Catholic schools.
Gerwig does a remarkable job portraying a Catholic teenager torn between the "good girl" everyone expects her to be, and her growing desires to be different. The movie handles the complex emotions of teen romance and, yes, sex with discretion visually and powerful emotion. Its portrayal of the priests and nuns in her life are all uniformly positive, Lady Bird's relationship with her mother may be occasionally contentious, but it also is one of the most positive portrayals of a teenage child/parent relationship in ages.
The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother is one for the ages, beautifully drawn and wonderfully portrayed by Ronan and Metcalf. Both are likely to be nominated for Oscars this coming spring, along with the stellar writing and directing talents of Gerwig. This is the breakout art house hit of the year. I urge you strongly to go and see why.