Flying the nest

Ah, the early aughts, when high school boys still gave bouquets.

Ah, the early aughts, when high school boys still gave bouquets.

Rated 4.0

Sacramento native Greta Gerwig comes home in Lady Bird, writing and directing the story of a senior at a Catholic girls’ high school in Sacramento. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who has endowed herself with the name Lady Bird, bridles at what she sees as the limitations of her hometown and the clueless smothering of her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). At 17, Lady Bird is too young to know that there are two kinds of people in Sacramento—those who can’t wait to get out and those who thank God they’re back. She only knows about the first kind, and she’s definitely one of them.

Lady Bird follows her senior year at Immaculate Heart High School (“Immaculate Fart,” she calls it) as she prepares to strike out as far as she can get from Sacramento and still speak the language. Not for UC Davis or any of the other driving-distance colleges her mother chooses. “You should just go to City College,” the exasperated Marion suggests sarcastically. “Y’know, with your work ethic just go to City College, and then to jail, and then back to City College, and maybe you can learn to pull yourself up …” This drives Lady Bird to jump from their moving car, then spend most of the movie with her arm in a pink cast that almost matches the painted red of her short-chopped hair.

Gerwig salts her script with funny lines that sound more like people living funny lives than actors saying funny things. As her episodic story follows Lady Bird through a budding interest in theater, experiments in love and lust and a brief, callous rift with lifelong pal Julie (a delightful Beanie Feldstein), the movie seems ever on the verge of sliding into sketch comedy, but always pulled back by Gerwig’s emotional generosity toward her characters.

Lady Bird’s second-biggest asset, next to Gerwig herself, is Saoirse Ronan—Bronx-born, Irish-raised, and by now, at age 23, well on her way to being one of the greatest movie actresses of the 21st century. Already passed over for two Oscars, it’s easy to imagine her being nominated every seven or eight years, then (if she never wins) finally getting one of those life-achievement “Apology Oscars” like Deborah Kerr or Peter O’Toole. Her Lady Bird is perfectly self-named—we see her tentatively testing her plumage as she prepares to fly the nest.

And third honors go to Laurie Metcalf as Marion, an awkwardly loving but harried mother whose take-charge assertiveness blinds her to how her exasperation is mirrored in her daughter’s rebellion. It’s probably the role of Metcalf’s career, certainly her best since Roseanne.

By the end, Lady Bird, in college in New York, has become Christine again, with a new understanding for her maladroit mother. As for the old hometown … well, she’s still telling New Yorkers that she’s from … um … San Francisco.

Baby steps, baby steps.