Lady Bird is a loving tribute to Sacramento, California, specifically growing up there as a teenager, from the perspective of a main character who hates Sacramento. Writer and director Gerwig opens the film with a travelogue of Sacramento streets and locations, a device she repeats sparingly (only significantly in the fantastic finale); Lady Bird is set in the fall of 2002; Gerwig and cinematographer Sam Levy shoot it in a grainy, succulent style. It looks seventies; only it’s very, very 2002 (and 2003). It’s particularly particular when Gerwig does an absurdist—but grounded—comedy aside.
It’s a gorgeous film, start to finish, and Gerwig’s enthralled with her subjects, whether setting, scenery, or character.
Despite an exceptionally on-point opening quote and irregular narration from lead Saoirse Ronan (and despite her being the Lady Bird of the title), the film is not a character study. Especially not of Ronan. Laurie Metcalf gets scenes from a character study, which ends up just making Gerwig’s big swing of a finale even more successful. Ronan is the daughter, Metcalf is the mom. Lady Bird is all about the two of them missing each other, hating each other, loving each other. From the start.
Before the Sacramento montage, which turns into a Catholic high school ground situation montage, Gerwig and Metcalf are on their way back from a college visit. They’re bonding over the Grapes of Wrath on audio cassette (2002), and then one of them says just the wrong thing, and the other one gets pissed off, and they argue and ruin their moment. As the film progresses, Gerwig’s going to reveal the depth of their emotionally rending relationship, layering in the details from conversations between the two, but also just comments from the supporting cast. Because Gerwig and Metcalf’s relationship is at the core of the family dynamics; dad Tracy Letts plays peacekeeper, while brother Jordan Rodrigues and his live-in girlfriend Marielle Scott watch from the sidelines. Everyone’s got a slightly different perspective on it, whereas Ronan just thinks Metcalf can’t stand her.
Which isn’t wrong.
The family drama is backdrop. In the foreground, it’s Ronan’s senior year of high school. She goes to a ritzy Catholic school on a scholarship. Her best friend is another scholarship kid, Beanie Feldstein. Their friendship is one of the film’s tectonic plates, and they’re fantastic together. Lois Smith is the nun in charge. She encourages Ronan to try theater, which leads to her meeting Lucas Hedges, her first love. Except then they all go to a Thanksgiving concert, and Ronan gets a look at moody boy Timothée Chalamet, and things start getting complicated.
Chalamet runs with an entirely different crowd—the rich and popular one—while being a tragically hip, soulful, Goth anarchist who sits through everything performatively reading A People’s History of the United States. Chalamet simultaneously looks twelve and thirty-eight; when he’s going, everything stops and stares—Ronan, Gerwig, the viewer. He’s captivating. And such a perfect little jackass.
But it’s not like Hedges doesn’t come with problems, and Ronan’s never met anyone like Chalamet. She’s not in college yet, where she’ll discover he’s just a trope, albeit with some substantial motivation with his own home life. Besides Ronan, the most family we get is from Feldstein and Hedges, but it’s there for all of the kids. Metcalf’s very aware she’s living working class in expensive circles, something she tries to impart to Ronan without success.
Things get worse when Letts loses his job, especially since it adds to the things he keeps from or downplays with Ronan. The character relationships are delicate and precise, with Gerwig and editor Nick Houy making all the right cuts.
The film’s technically superlative. Gerwig’s direction, Levy’s photography, Hoey’s cutting, Jon Brion’s music (though the soundtrack is more important, and—in what can only be described as a baller move—Gerwig has the stones to turn liking a Dave Matthews song into a plot point), and then April Napier’s costumes. But the film’s all about Ronan’s performance.
Watching Lady Bird is watching Ronan to see what she’s going to do next. The same thing happens with Metcalf, which is such an outstanding echo—but Ronan’s in the spotlight. Gerwig throws a lot at her but then—especially in the second act—skips significant dramatic moments, so Ronan doesn’t have a steady character development arc. Instead, Gerwig uses skip-aheads to adjust the narrative distance, finding a different angle to inspect Ronan’s performance. Ronan’s full-stop great, but Gerwig hinges the entire thing on her being able to do the development arc in summary; Gerwig’s incredibly trusting and fully rewarded for it.
Ronan, Metcalf, and Chalamet are the best performances, but there aren’t any slouches. Letts, Feldstein, and Hedges are all great too. Smith’s awesome, as is Stephen McKinley Henderson as the theater teacher priest.
Lady Bird’s one of a kind from its first story beat (in the prologue) and then, over and over, one of a kind. It’s even magical at times. Gerwig, Ronan, and Metcalf do incomparable work.
It’s so damn good.