Christine McPherson, who prefers to be called Lady Bird — it’s her given name, she insists, in the sense that “it’s given to me, by me” — is a senior at a Catholic girls’ high school. Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the principal, has read Lady Bird’s college application essay.
“It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” Sister Sarah remarks. This comes as a surprise, both to Lady Bird and the viewer, who is by now aware of Lady Bird’s frustration with her hometown.
“I guess I pay attention,” she says, not wanting to be contrary.
“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the wise sister asks.
The idea that attention is a form of love (and vice versa) is a beautiful insight, and in many ways it’s the key to “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig’s mesmerizing, insightful new movie, the first for which she is one-handedly credited as writer and director. Ms. Gerwig, a Sacramento native and member of her heroine’s generation — the movie takes place mostly during the 2002-3 academic year — knows her characters and their world very well. Her affection delivers them like a secular form of grace: not uncritically, rather unconditionally. And if you pay the right kind of attention to “Lady Bird” — absorbing its riffs and digressions as well as its melodies, its choral passages along with its solos and duets — you will almost certainly love it. It’s hard not to.
Lady Bird herself may be a bit more of a challenge. Played with daunting, dauntless precision by Saoirse Ronan (already, at 23, one of the most formidable actors in movies today), Lady Bird can give herself and everyone around her a hard time. Not because she is peculiarly reckless or upset — Lady Bird is the farthest thing from a melodrama of youth gone wild — but because she keeps on asserting her own individuality, even when she’s not really sure what that means.
She tackles the practical and spiritual project of becoming who she is with the mixture of self-assurance and insecurity common to adolescents of a certain sensitive kind. She is idealistic and hypocritical; self-centered and generous; a rebel and a conformist; an enthusiast and a skeptic. An ordinary American teenager, but also — and thus — a unique bundle of contradictory and complex impulses.
“I want you to be the very best version of yourself, says her judgmental, habitually disappointed mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).
But what if this is the best version? Lady Bird responds. It’s a sharp, cynical line (one of many) and also a tormented existential question.
Christine (to use the name Marion gave her) wants to satisfy her mother, which is a difficult task because the standards seem impossibly high and subject to change without notice. She also wants to be true to her own desires and convictions, which is difficult for other reasons.
While Lady Bird honors the gravity of Christine’s struggle, it hardly neglects the everyday absurdity of her plight. The very first scene begins in tears. Mother and daughter, listening together to an audiobook of The Grapes of Wrath while driving home from a college tour, cry over the book’s moving final words. Their shared moment of literary catharsis quickly devolves into an argument, which is punctuated by a startling and hilarious jolt of physical comedy (one of many).
In tone and structure, in the end, this is a teenage comedy. It finds humor in the eternally renewable cycle of senior year: homecoming and prom; math tests and school plays; the agonizing stages of the admissions process. Along the way, Christine undergoes other, extracurricular rites of passage. She falls in love for the first time and has sex for the first time. She trades in her loyal, longtime best friend (Beanie Feldstein) for a richer, more popular girl (Odeya Rush). She fights with her mother and her older brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), and leans on her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), an affable fellow with troubles of his own.
You might think you’ve seen this all before. You probably have, but never quite like this. What Ms. Gerwig has done — and it’s by no means a small accomplishment — is to infuse one of the most convention-bound, rose-colored genres in American cinema with freshness and surprise. The characters can look like familiar figures: the sad dad and the disapproving mom; the sullen brother and his goth girlfriend (Marielle Scott); the mean girls and the cool teachers; the too-perfect boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) and the dirtbag boyfriend (Timothée Chalamet). Though none of whom are caricatures, and while everyone is mocked, nobody is treated with cruelty or scorn, at least by Ms. Gerwig. (Lady Bird is not always so kind.)
The script is brilliantly well-written, full of wordplay and vivid argument. Every line appears like something a person might actually say, which means that Lady Bird film is also brilliantly well-acted. It is not too quick to soothe the abrasions of class and family. The McPhersons are barely poor, however, the daily toll of holding onto the ragged middle of the middle class is clearly shown in Larry’s melancholy and Marion’s ill humor. They are a loving family, but their steadfast devotion to one another doesn’t always express itself as kindness. They are real people, honestly portrayed.
That might make Lady Bird sound drab and dutiful, but it’s the opposite. I wish I could convey to you just how thrilling this movie is. I wish I could quote all of the jokes and recount the best offbeat bits. I’d tell you about the sad priest and the football coach, about the communion wafers and the Sacramento real estate, about the sly, jaunty editing rhythms, the oddly apt music choices and the way Ms. Ronan drops down on the grass in front of her house when she receives an important piece of mail. I’m tempted to catalog the six different ways the ending can make you cry.
I’ll settle once and for all: the bittersweet feeling of having watched someone grow right in front of your eyes, into a different and in some ways improved version of herself. In life, that’s a messy, endless process, which is one reason we need movies. Or to put it simply, even though Lady Bird will never seem perfect, Lady Bird is.