Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) isn't really called Lady Bird, she's called Christine, as her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) insists on reminding her, but she's at a difficult age as a seventeen-year-old where rebellion is the order of the day, but it may be doing her more harm than good. On the way back from investigating a college she could attend once the next year of school has been completed, she and her cash-strapped mother get into an argument about whether she should try for an East Coast University where Lady Bird feels she would be better suited and able to pursue her interest in the arts, but Marion is sceptical. Their row grows so heated that the teen throws herself from the car in frustration...
Coming of age movies never seem to go out of style, though the indie section of the movie making community are often more interested in making them than the bigger budget director and writers in the twenty-first century, perhaps because, like horror movies, they are easy to do on the cheap and are guaranteed an audience, be they actual teens or those older wishing to indulge in nostalgia. The writer and director here was indie darling Greta Gerwig, who had over the decade and a half preceding this carved out a niche, as they say, in the lower budget though higher profile sector away from the major studios. However, with this effort the industry was keen to accept her as one of their own.
Oscar nominations and plenty of other awards interest followed Lady Bird's release, with pretty much everyone appearing to enjoy it, with the caveat it was no epic production, it was a small tale at heart. But here Gerwig demonstrated the value of that, and how an intimate distance from your characters can tap into some big emotions, as the feelings most viewers had either as parent or offspring were targeted by the film. While she said it wasn't expressly autobiographical the director had elicited a genuine response from her audience, as if she had manufactured an experience specifically aimed at them almost by accident. Maybe nothing so casual was in the facts of its creation, of course.
There was a definite sense of a firm guiding hand at work, yet also thanks to an instinct for getting through to the emotional core of a mother daughter relationship that meant it played out as if no other outcome could have been achieved. Lady Bird and Marion have such a typical connection and treat each other in such a recognisable manner that you could believe a lapse into cliché was just around the corner of every vignette-like scene, yet it never unfolded like that, largely down to some often hilariously well-observed humour. Yes, this was a movie happy to aim to bring tears to the eyes, but it was also explicitly a comedy, and often that was appealing to a universal memory: those times when you cringe to look back on your younger self and those points where you tried to be clever and independent.
And naturally the consequences of that would see you, if not always humiliated, then sobered up when you realised you were either throwing away something you really needed in your life or had made a fool of yourself and possibly even hurt someone else in the process. Lady Bird does that time and again, and only gradually learns from her mistakes which could deliver a painful watch, but thanks to Ronan coaxing the laughs from the script and playing off the other, equally superb, cast members so well, managed to divine a truth that set it apart from even the better teen movies that had been arranged with the wisdom of passing years. Then again, as we see with Marion, with age does not necessarily come the savvy to treat people in an understanding manner, and Gerwig did not wrap this up in a neat bow as we could perceive this as a snapshot of a year in a life, more than one life in fact, and everything here would feed into what happened next, whatever that may be. Don't forget where you came from, was the message, and don't give up those who appreciated you. The small tragedy was how difficult that lesson was to learn and live by. Music by Jon Brion.
[Universal's Blu-ray has a commentary with Gerwig and a featurette interviewing the main talent.]