Lady Bird, for those my age, has nothing to do with a former president’s wife. It’s the story of a high school girl, beautifully acted, focusing on her relationship with boys and with her mother, also beautifully acted. In some ways, it’s the biggest happy surprise of the year, as it’s the (solo) directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, heretofore known for her respected acting in independent films.
It’s a fresh, wholly original version of an old story—a high school girl making her way through academics, friends and “friends”, various boys, and parents—especially Mom. It’s keenly observed, funny, maddening, frustrating, and packed with moments of intense realism. The plot twists and turns are nothing new, but the way they play out is; the film owes very little to the generic coming-of-age story. The situations feel fresh, if not always comfortable. The film’s rhythms are nothing like those of a mainstream film, but the change is all for the good. There’s a new major director on the scene.
What’s drawing attention in addition to the arrival of a new talent is the acting. The lead is Saoirse Ronan (previously nominated for her work in 2015’s Brooklyn—for which I wish she’d won—and Atonement years earlier). She is a major talent, and this might be the last teen she gets to play. It’s a beautiful performance, especially considering the British accent she used for Atonement and the Irish one in Brooklyn. She’s not afraid to be unlikable, and it’s a performance that understands that not everything a teen does makes sense, even to them.
In the “I stand vindicated/I always knew it” category, Laurie Metcalf as the Mom is as good. Metcalf has been known primarily for her work in television’s Roseanne. I have been waiting for her since the ’90s to have the opportunity to show her talent. She did recently on stage in A Doll’s House, Part 2, for which she won a Tony this past year. She will certainly be nominated for her work here, which is painfully real, occasionally offensive, and always true to the character.
Lucas Hedges, Oscar-nominated for Manchester by the Sea, seems to be quickly becoming the go-to young man for late-teen supporting performances; he had a similar part, if not a completely different character, in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. He’s displaying an exceptionally wide range these days. His character in Lady Bird is the only one that comes close to being in a clichéd situation, but he still makes it thoughtful and unique. Timothée Chalamet, sure to be Oscar-nominated for Call Me By Your Name in the leading actor category, has a smaller supporting role, coming off as at first mysterious, and then, well, not so mysterious.
Lady Bird is many other things—an ode to a time and place, for instance, as well as a period piece. But for this season, it will be a showcase of excellent performance, and an announcement that a major writing/directing talent has arrived.