At some point while watching Greta Gerwig’s fantastic “Lady Bird,” I managed to pull myself out of its welcoming hypnotism to question myself: “How is Gerwig pulling this off?”
In a tight, taut and splendidly radiant 94 minutes, the film not just touches on a remarkable amount of subjects, but deftly explores seemingly every thread that makes up the sometimes horrid and sometimes wonderful collage of everyone’s senior year in high school.
I talked the experience over with my two friends afterward, and it was almost immediately and abundantly clear how a different one of those threads resonated with us the most – based on our own background.
Such is the magic of “Lady Bird,” an achingly real hour-and-a-half of cinematic vigor with a dedication to authenticity that makes it impossible not to connect with. Its countless threads compose the bittersweet feeling that comes with realizing you’ve got a lot of growing to do quickly as college looms, and the concept of maturity is vastly underutilized.
Gerwig makes avoiding the feeling of nostalgia a fruitless affair – yearning for a halcyon time when we were simultaneously lost and so sure of where we were in life.
In “Lady Bird,” that nostalgia is an even stronger force if you grew up in a town you were hell-bent on leaving. In this case, it’s 2002 Sacramento.
For Lady Bird, or Christine McPherson – portrayed in instantly iconic fashion by Irish actress and breakout-in-waiting Saoirse Ronan – the other end of the country is the place to be. There, she plans to find culture and sense of an ambition that’s more or less lying dormant as she finishes up her time at a Catholic high school. It’s a time that sees her date guys, play pranks on teachers and get high at parties, then raid the freezer for all the 5-Minute Dinners that are hidden there.
This iteration of high school life is simply spilling over the top with wit, humanity and appropriate teenage trepidation. Much like last year’s “Manchester by the Sea,” it finds humor in even the darkest times, and balances the two tones gracefully.
The irony that all of Lady Bird’s hijinks – imagine her as Juno with a touch of Joan Jett – unfolds against the backdrop of a Catholic school in a world that has just experienced the horrors of 9/11 never plays itself dry. Communion wafers are eaten like Pringles (“It’s OK, they’re not consecrated yet.”), and only Gerwig could make an opening sequence sprinkled with Bible readings and dripping with charisma so exhilarating.
At the core of “Lady Bird” is Christine’s infinitely complex relationship with Mother Lady Bird, and how those interactions ripple through the rest of the lower-middle-class-inhabiting McPherson family. If you can name it, Christine and her mom have contrasting views of it.
It’s the type of relationship that every moviegoer can empathize with – on both the parts of Lady Bird and her mom, played by Laurie Metcalf in resonant, Academy Award-worthy fashion. She’s a dominating force; she knows she has the best idea of what’s good for her daughter, yet her voice quivers ever so slightly in shouting matches when she remembers how contained Lady Bird’s world is at this point in her life.
In addition to Ronan and Metcalf, the film is a reassurance that Hollywood’s up-and-comers make up an extremely talented pool. Lucas Hedges builds off the success of last year’s “Manchester” in a very different yet equally engrossing turn, and Timothée Chalamet plays the role of broody, paranoid, cigarette-smoking heartthrob to a T in the midst of a breakout year for the 21-year-old New Yorker.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to make an argument against Beanie Feldstein being the standout among all of them.
Buoyed by an unforgiving adoration for Dave Matthews’s melancholy anthem “Crash Into Me,” “Lady Bird” has an unmistakably turn-of-the-century visual aesthetic. While its personality is bright and splashy, the colors on screen are intentionally toned down, to the point where Lady Bird’s red hair – which you just know was the result of some rebellious turn – is sometimes the most colorful thing on its canvas.
Meanwhile, iPhones aren’t yet around and the Internet is only a few years old. You feel that impending controlled chaos that is the Digital Age coming for our characters, even though you yearn for it not to; they already have too much to deal with right now.
And just like you can’t stop the inevitable tide of post-high school life, there’s little to prevent yourself from grasping onto the holy word of “Lady Bird” by at least one of its many threads. It preaches relatability while also feeling refreshing, and it’ll make you yearn for the ostensibly controlled world that Lady Bird and Co. find themselves in – even when, like the title character, you didn’t realize what was so special about it until you’re miles away.
Lady Bird is rated R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Odeya Rush, Timothee Chalamet, Laurie Metcalf
Directed by Greta Gerwig