It would be easy to read Lady Bird, the directorial debut of erstwhile actor and screenwriter Greta Gerwig as an ingénue taking flight out from under the shadow of director Noah Baumbach, with whom she wrote some of her most enduring roles in Frances Ha and Mistress America. But Lady Bird reveals a strikingly original authorial voice and an approach to storytelling that is bold, fresh, warm, and absorbing.
Set in Sacramento (Gerwig's hometown) in the early 2000s, post-September 11, the titular character is on the cusp of adulthood. Or so she thinks. Saoirse Ronan's Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson has so much vigour for leaping into life outside of the faceless Sacramento suburbs and her Catholic high school that she spectacularly injures herself in the film's first minutes. Collared by not only her own unsureness of herself, but her family's financial struggles, Lady Bird feels that she can't take flight.
In sharp contrast to most high school narratives, there is little emphasis on upward social mobility. Lady Bird doesn't climb, but drifts - a dynamic that Gerwig and her collaborators exploit.
Lady Bird is episodic in nature, forgoing long sections of exposition and context in favour of rapid fire jokes and trusting that the audience will be along for the ride. Gerwig assembles scenes with such assuredness and Sam Levy's cinematography is so rich and distinctive in its sense of time and place that the film flows beautifully. It's never jarring to move from sequence to sequence.
The film is also full of absurd humour delivered brilliantly by the cast. Granting humanism to the characters, they laugh at and with each other. The script is brilliant in the way it follows connections between characters almost obliquely through the lines of dialogue, firmly establishing a place for each character in the tiny (but expanding) universe of Lady Bird.
As Lady's Bird's put-upon mother Marion, Laurie Metcalf is flawless. Her warmth and sense of fun and beauty is tempered by her obligatory practicality. Money is tight, and Marion's realism clashes with Lady Bird's optimism to drive the film. Beanie Feldstein also wins huge points for her charming portrayal of Lady Bird's best friend Julie, a social outcast who's accepted her fate with a smile.
Perhaps what's most fascinating about Lady Bird, beyond its masterful and unique way of telling a story, is the central character. She is fickle, sometimes mean, rash, and brutal, but we root for her because she has so much spirit. She's not perfect, but her vigour, captured by Saoirse Ronan with a kind of supernatural brilliance, is what makes her so endearing and her flaws are what make her so relatable.
What Greta Gerwig has achieved her first time behind the camera is nothing short of exceptional. Its bold screenplay could have easily fallen flat, but in execution it is an inviting, deeply nostalgic search for identity. And it feels like no one else could have done it.
Lady Bird opens in Australian cinemas on Thursday February 15th.