One of the most important parts of growing up is realizing what a pain in the ass you were as a kid.
The prickly protagonist of “Lady Bird” — the enormously entertaining solo directorial debut from actress and screenwriter Greta Gerwig — doesn’t quite get there until the film’s final moments. But this beguiling, screamingly funny semi-autobiography looks back with clear-eyed compassion and great warmth. As soon as it was over, I wanted to watch it again.
Saoirse Ronan stars as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, an average student of modest means and enormous — if still slightly vague — aspirations. She’s suffering through her senior year at Sacramento’s Immaculate Heart, augmenting the Catholic schoolgirl uniform with streaks of raspberry dye in her hair while snacking on unconsecrated communion wafers between classes. The nickname is one Christine bestowed upon herself, another affectation to stand out from the madding crowd.
It’s the fall of 2002, during that unsteady limbo between 9/11 and the Iraq War, the numbed uncertainty of this California suburb only exacerbating Lady Bird’s occasionally obnoxious yearning to fly free. She’s by turns brilliant and bratty, sympathetic and spoiled, adorable and insufferable — in short, a teenage girl.
Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) would rather Christine stick around and go to a state college, especially since it’s starting to look like her depressed dad (played by playwright Tracy Letts) isn’t long for his job. A quiet economic anxiety percolates throughout the picture, which is astute about class in ways few American films even attempt anymore. Lady Bird’s clashes with her mother form the meat of the movie’s conflicts — passive-aggressive duets between two strong personalities who love each other very much, but can’t always stand to be in the same room together. Metcalf and Ronan bring a lived-in, almost exhausted quality to their constant squabbling. It never feels like the first time these two are having these arguments.
From the school play to the senior prom, Gerwig covers all the required coming of age movie staples, but from fresh and unexpected angles. The screenplay is incredibly savvy about how teenagers like to try on different personas, with Lady Bird ditching her old friends to try and run with the cool kids for a while, her extracurricular interests shifting according to the attentions of an earnest theater geek (Lucas Hedges of “Manchester by the Sea”) or the rich-kid hipster who reads Howard Zinn (a very funny Timothée Chalamet). “I want you to become the best version of you that you can possibly be,” an exasperated Marion tells her daughter, without quite understanding how much trial and error such a request requires.
The character of Lady Bird may spend a lot of time sulking, but the movie itself seldom sits still. It’s got the jaunty, propulsive energy that Gerwig’s screenplays for “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” brought to director Noah Baumbach’s films. Their partnership really opened up a window in his previously sour, hermetic storytelling, and with “Lady Bird” Gerwig’s breezily humane sensibility finally takes (forgive me) full flight. There are so many sweet, throwaway asides in which even the bit players are granted dreams and aspirations of their own. My favorite is the drama teacher, played by Stephen Henderson of “Fences,” who in a quick couple of minutes gives us a glimpse of this guy’s entire life.
Ronan’s performance is all the more impressive for being such the temperamental opposite of her luminous movie-star turn in 2015’s “Brooklyn.” Here, she’s all awkward angles and spots of acne, every once in a while displaying fleeting moments of a grace that Lady Bird hasn’t quite mastered yet. Metcalf has never had a movie role this meaty and we’ve been all the poorer for it. I also adored Letts’ impeccably timed interruptions, a slight twinkle in his eye whenever he plays referee between these two for yet another round.
Sam Levy’s grainy digital cinematography has a terrific, muted quality like a memory that’s just about to fade. Gerwig’s short, punchy scenes pack an entire tumultuous year into a fleet 93 minutes, ending on a beautiful note of uncertainty for Lady Bird, but not for the audience. We know she’ll probably grow up to make a movie as wonderful as this one.