“Lady Bird” is an invented name, the kind of self-appointed moniker we give ourselves in our would-be rebellious youth, when it seems like nothing is worse than existing in our own skin. That’s the essence of Lady Bird, so titled because it sees eye-to-eye with the fiercely restless high school senior at its center, even as it also sees right through her. This is a film so wise to the perils and joys of millennial adolescence that at times it feels like an emotional time machine, so specific about its time, place, and personality that it not only feels lived in, but lived through.
Indeed, it very likely was. The film marks the solo filmmaking debut of Greta Gerwig, who as an actress brightens every screen on which she appears, in no small part because it seems like her characters spring organically from her spirit. It makes sense that such a uniquely mannered magnetism would perfectly translate into a writer-director, and here it feels as though Gerwig arrives with her point-of-view fully formed. Her gaze is askew but firm, gracing each moment with a touch of whimsy but still actualizing the painful humanity at their core. She embraces the inherent flaws of her characters while also indicting them. The film’s beauty lies in those contradictions, cherishing the purity of willful teenage naiveté but occasionally wincing because now we know better. Clearly, Gerwig does know better; her greatest gift as a filmmaker is wizened perspective.
Angst, both the legitimate variety as well as the manufactured sort, is the film’s stock-in-trade, and no wonder – it’s the emotional outcry of choice for people-of-a-certain-teen-age. They yearn for admittance in the club of adulthood but can’t yet fathom the gravity of adult problems, so they cling to their day-to-day drama with end-of-world direness thinking maybe the contrived stress will score them a ticket. Such is the struggle for “Lady Bird,” a name adopted because she can’t bear the regressive constraints of living with a name given to her by her parents (it’s Christine, by the way). Saoirse Ronan plays Lady Bird/Christine with all the manufactured sophistication of a young girl who is too smart for her own good but isn’t quite smart enough to scale back. She is totally over life in Sacramento and plans on going to college on the East Coast, “where the culture is.” In the meantime, though, she would at least be happier in the more luxurious portions of Sacramento. Lady Bird hails from “the wrong side of the tracks” – literally, she lives on the side of the railroad tracks where lower-middle-class families reside in modest homes, ever juxtaposed against the luxurious mansions just on the other side.
The search for something, anything, with the luster of “better” defines Lady Bird’s all-consuming teenage plight, and it’s the core of Lady Bird’s sparkling, slightly-elevated reality. Hers is the instantly identifiable fight for self-actualization, seeking to latch onto something, be it a place, a person, or a status, that will define her, all the while ignoring the actual beauty of who she already is. This means betraying her closest friends in order to mingle in more esteemed social circles and constantly bickering with her fully judgmental but always sacrificial mother (Laurie Metcalf), who long ago resigned herself to a certain lifestyle and now wears the middle-class struggle as protective gear against the pain of yearning.
There is no narrative here – only very specific people at a very specific time in a very specific place. Gerwig captures them all with gut-wrenching grace and quirky humor, delivering what amounts to an early-21st-century-period piece (yes, that can be a legitimate thing now) dripping in authenticity but tinged with a sprinkling of magic whimsy that elevates the characters off the screen but keeps their feet firmly on the ground. Lady Bird’s title may be inspired by a made-up name, but it’s symbolic of that transitory snapshot that we all live through, where we so desperately want to reach takeoff velocity, anxious to leave in the dust that which we deem boring, or rigid, or stifling. In time we grow our wings, but by the time we’re flying the air is so thin and the speed so intense that we find ourselves wishing to relive that restless, beautiful moment we left behind. Lady Bird seizes that moment with all the bright and fleeting glory of lightning in a bottle.