Trapped in a small car on a college road trip, a 17-year-old girl and her mother come to the end of a 21-hour audiobook of “The Grapes of Wrath.” Asked to sit with what she’s heard, the girl laments, “I wish I could live through something.” Of course, she is, and she will. And her mother will be there, watching and fretting, as she does.
This is the beginning of Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” a semiautobiographical coming-of-age tale set in 2002 Sacramento, California. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) or “Lady Bird” as she has chosen to rechristen herself finds her hometown stultifying and provincial. Her lower-middle-class family struggles to make ends meet: Dad Larry (Tracy Letts) clings to his job amid layoffs, while mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf), Lady Bird’s adoptive brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), and his live-in girlfriend, Shelly, (Marielle Scott) all contribute to the household income.
Our hero likewise doesn’t have the easiest time navigating the halls of sibling schools Immaculate Heart of Mary (all girls) and St. Francis Xavier (all boys). The Catholic schools exacerbate her class-consciousness (“I’m from the wrong side of the tracks”), and senior year feels like one trial after another: trying out theater (with students comically overreaching to perform Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along”), trying on a theater-kid boyfriend (Lucas Hedges’ nice but diffident Danny), maneuvering to escape to a New York college, and pondering losing her virginity to a rebel without a clue (Timothée Chalamet’s Kyle).
At 34, Gerwig has established herself as an important star of stage (“The Village Bike”) and screen (“Frances Ha,” “20th Century Women”), and here she breaks out as a writer-director to watch. The film's unvarnished, unglamorized high school drama has the quirky humor one expects from Gerwig, as well as the sudden emotions inherent in a teenager’s process of discovery (what disappointments guys can be, the indispensability of a true friend) and self-discovery. Ultimately, it’s a mother-daughter love story, replete with the tribulations of painful individuation.
An outstanding cast doesn’t hurt. As the precocious and hormonally grumpy Lady Bird, the always excellent Ronan’s never been better, and she’s matched step by step by the ever-brilliant Metcalf, whose Marion can barely contain her anxious love but fearfully, pridefully tries. Gerwig’s bench is deep, and it’s always a pleasure when she calls up Beanie Feldstein (as Lady Bird’s loveable bestie), Stephen McKinley Henderson (as a depressed priest) or Lois Smith (as a wise nun).
As per the “Merrily We Roll Along” song, “before you know where you are,/There you are.” The pacey “Lady Bird” (ruthlessly trimmed down from a 350-page screenplay to a 94-minute film) deposits Christine at the foot of adulthood with a mountain yet to climb and realizations of what, and who, matters most. By this wistful narrative end point, Christine’s new beginning, audiences will feel as attached as Marion, wishing we could stay with our promising girl but knowing she has to fly on her own.