Flight of passage
Coming of age in Nor Cal with Lady Bird
Christine McPherson, a Sacramento teenager finishing up her high school years at a Catholic institution, prefers to be called “Lady Bird.” She’s a bright, angry and somewhat uninhibited misfit, and she’s the youthfully conflicted title character in a pungent new comedy/drama written and directed by Greta Gerwig.
Gerwig is a Sacramento native herself, and for her directorial debut she’s concocted a briskly incisive entertainment that is part coming-of-age tale, part comedy of California manners, part oddball rom-com. Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn) plays the title role with quietly bristling mixtures of irony and charm, with occasional touches of Gerwiggian friskiness.
Heretofore known chiefly as an actor (Frances Ha, etc.), Gerwig does not appear in this film, but her zest for the offbeat is evident throughout. And even with assorted hints of autobiography turning up in Christine/Lady Bird, the picture is also distinguished by a large and distinctively observed cast of secondary characters.
Laurie Metcalf, perhaps the most familiar face in the entire film, is excellent as Christine’s compulsively anxious mother. Tracy Letts is amiably ineffectual as Christine’s indulgent and despairing dad. Those two older characters are pivotal to the whole story, but the portrayals of a half dozen younger characters are no less memorable.
Particular standouts among the younger set include Lucas Hedges as Danny O’Neill, a stage-struck charmer who becomes more friend than boyfriend to Christine, and Timothée Chalamet as a gloomily handsome nonconformist who subsequently catches Christine’s eye. Odeya Rush plays class glamor girl Jenna Walton, who also captures Christine’s interest and who temporarily disrupts Christine’s long-running friendship with hefty “Jules,” a nonconformist of another sort (played with robust cheer by Beanie Feldstein).
Others of note include the ceaseless Lois Smith as the charmingly spirited Sister Sarah Joan, and kindly Stephen McKinley Henderson as the hauntedly gentle Father Leviatch. Jake McDorman plays Mr. Bruno, a handsome young teacher on whom Jules develops a crush. Jordan Rodrigues plays Miguel, Christine’s adopted brother, and Marielle Scott plays his live-in girlfriend, Shelly.
As you would expect with any coming-of-age tale, there are lessons to be learned here and points to consider and reconsider. The film as a whole might be taken as an embodiment of something the unsinkable Sister Sarah Joan says about true love and close, honest attention being the same thing.
The story of Lady Bird/Christine is front and center throughout, but Gerwig also takes care to honor the individual point of view of every character mentioned above. Most of them are caricatures at one point or another, but none goes without a moment or two of the special recognitions that arise from Gerwig’s mixtures of sympathetic realism and quietly scathing humor.