Mother Battles Daughter.  Both Win.

Lady Bird a film by Greta Gerwig.  With Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein.  ****1/2

I was signed up for this movie as soon as I heard it was by Greta Gerwig.  Gerwig is a fundamentally odd performer: her roles are weird, her characters offbeat; she is slightly awkward physically, though beautiful and winning.  Watching Greta Gerwig dance free form is one of the great aesthetic experiences of modern times.  I wasn’t surprised to hear that she had made her own movie.  I felt sure that, though it might not be perfect, I would like it.  And I did!

It focuses on a girl’s senior year in high school.[1]  Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) attends a Catholic girl’s school, though she doesn’t seem especially Catholic.  Her real name is Christine, though she has for some reason dubbed herself Lady Bird, perhaps to annoy her mother (Laurie Metcalf).  She runs for office with weird posters that make her look like half girl-half bird, participates in religious ceremonies but doesn’t take the host during the sacrament, lies on the floor munching communion wafers with her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein).[2]

In her most startling scene of rebellion, she is on the passenger side while her mother is driving and the two of them are arguing, and in a moment of exasperation opens the car door and falls out, a maneuver which, instead of killing her or shredding skin all over her body, gives her a minor broken arm.  She’s a rebellious young woman: we get it.  Headstrong and kind of crazy.  Just what we expected from a Greta Gerwig film.

I loved this character and her plump girlfriend Julie, liked the way they got together to chat, tried out for a school play with the local boy’s Catholic school, flirted with and fell for the same guy, Danny (Lucas Hedges), who had the boy’s lead.  The major thrust of Lady Bird’s life is that she feels stifled in Sacramento in particular and California in general, wants to go “where culture is like, New York, or Connecticut or New Hampshire”(?).  In feeling that way she comes in strong conflict with her mother, who wants her to be practical and go to a state school, also probably wants her around because she likes her daughter and loves her, though she doesn’t always show it well.  Marie is a psychologist who works at a psyche ward, and is probably the second most interesting character in the movie, a strong centered woman—beautifully portrayed by Metcalf—who wants her daughter to calm down and be more normal.  She thinks the young lady would be happier that way, and she might be right.  But nobody is going to stifle this free spirit.

Lady Bird has an ally in her mildly depressed father Larry (Tracy Letts), a computer programmer who loses his job in the middle of the year.  He seems to be one of those middle-aged workers who is being edged out because his competition is younger and will probably work for less (he’s in competition for a new job with his adopted son), but he understands his daughter’s wish to get away and helps her with financial aid forms.

The senior year of high school is one of the more terrifying years of any young person’s life, and it’s a measure of the anxiety she’s feeling that Lady Bird gets off kilter even from her rebellious phase, abandoning Julie for a cooler and more popular girl named Jenna (Odeya Rush), giving up on Danny for a fledgling rock musician named Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), social climbing in general, to the point that she lies to Jenna about where she lives.  We have a feeling all along that she’ll recover, and she does, spectacularly, on the night of her Senior Prom.  For Lady Bird—as for Greta Gerwig herself—to get too conventional is a mistake.  The straight and narrow for her is to be slightly nuts.

Lady Bird is about that year in a young woman’s life, but emotionally it’s a mother daughter movie, that loving bond that often becomes a battle.  Both women act exactly as they should; that’s what puts them at odds.  Lady Bird’s college applications go the way we expect (and not just because Gerwig is a New York actress): some East coast school was going to see this young woman as a diamond in the rough, even if she got suspended from high school for saying something uncharacteristically mean at a school assembly (part of her mixed-up period).  Her mother reacts in character too, though perhaps a little too harshly.  The anger she feels at her daughter’s rebellion is a measure of how much she loves her.  The final scene—which intriguingly involves a moment in a church—resolves this situation perfectly, solving nothing but stating the truth of what is really going on.

It’s a movie about a high school girl but it’s a gem.  Great acting, strong direction.  The best thing is probably the script, and the nerve to do the project in the first place.  Credit Greta Gerwig for all that too.

[1] Could I register a complaint about the IMDb website, which on various other occasions has shown itself to be deficient in grammar and proofreading?  Here is the single sentence with which it characterizes this movie.  “The adventures of a young woman living in Northern California for a year.”  Do they not see that this implies she was living there for just one year?   A major point of the movie is that Lady Bird has lived there her whole life.

[2] My wife, who is Catholic, assumed Lady Bird was Catholic but just hadn’t been to confession; that’s why she wasn’t taking the host.  But she thought a number of the Catholic references in the movie were off kilter; she doesn’t think two girls at the school could have been casually eating communion wafers, and she didn’t believe that nuns would have been wearing habits at a Catholic school in 2002.