People will say the reason that “Lady Bird” stands out among its lesser high school movie peers is because its main character acts like a real, authentic teenager. This is true, Saoirse Ronan does carry herself wholeheartedly in the overly-confident, underly-secure way that many American teens do. But that’s not the reason why the movie is great. “Lady Bird” achieves greatness by acting as a snapshot of a city and its citizens, a caring depiction of a wistful nine months, and all the memories and aggravations that are squeezed into that fleeting moment of time.
That tenderness and love is owed to Greta Gerwig, the writer and director of the film. For anyone who has seen Gerwig’s aloofness and big personality on-screen, the movie will feel autobiographical, like Ronan is reenacting some triumphant moment of validation or an awkward sexual encounter that Gerwig herself once experienced while growing up in Sacramento. But, nothing in this movie actually happened to Gerwig, even though it feels truly authentic to her. It’s like Ronan has fully channeled the teenage Gerwig persona and given free reign to run amok and cause mayhem in California’s capital. Or maybe it’s Gerwig that is channeling Ronan, living through her fictional adolescent skin to act out this story.
Clearly, “Lady Bird” is a dual effort, with Gerwig’s confident, emotional direction giving Ronan plenty of room to act out her thoughtful take on teenage romance and rebellion. Every character in Lady Bird’s life is relatable and honest, their plights as hilarious as they are endearing. Even as Lady Bird is clamoring for the center of attention throughout her last year of high school, her characters continue living in the edges of the frame, everyone from her nice guy boyfriend (Lucas Hedges) to her firm but financially-lofty parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts). It’s an awareness that isn’t present in coming-of-age movies. It’s like if in “Dazed and Confused,” we saw what arguments or adventures the teachers and football coaches got into that day, or in “The Breakfast Club” if we saw how the parents spent those eight hours before they had to pick their kids back up again from school. They may be supporting characters, but their stories are featured in full.
It’s a major achievement to make a movie like “Lady Bird,” and it’s even more impressive to do so on your first directing attempt. Without any hyperbole whatsoever, Greta Gerwig is truly her generation’s most gifted cinematic storyteller, an auteur who breathes literature and bleeds 70mm film, an astute craftsman able to decipher the most complex emotional nuances of her characters and even more impressively, herself. Gerwig stories are genre-blending paradoxes, they make you feel unique but less alone. But as Ronan and Gerwig prove in “Lady Bird”, oftenimes the best way to live is without definition.