'Lady Bird' Review: Saoirse Ronan Leads Greta Gerwig's Lovely Coming-Of-Age Tale [New York Film Festival]

Love hurts. Whether it's platonic, romantic, or familial, the relationships that we build are rarely as clean or as kind as we usually see on screen. Part of what makes Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird so remarkable is her refusal to shy away from that ugliness and how, as a result, the film becomes all the more beautiful.

Lady Bird follows Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) as she navigates her last year of high school. Her dissatisfaction with her life in the suburbs (she wants to go to college on the East Coast) is compounded by financial anxieties — her family may not be able to afford tuition to the colleges she really wants to attend, and she pretends they're in a different income bracket in order to impress her new friends — as well as her romantic hopes and disappointments, and her fractious relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf).

These are all themes that have been covered in film countless times before, but rarely with the kind of candid touch that Gerwig has. For instance, even though Christine has her heart broken by Danny (Lucas Hedges, one of the best young actors working today), that hurt doesn't discount the fond feelings that she ultimately still has for him. The glee she expresses after their first kiss — as soon as she's alone, she dances and screams in the middle of the street — is a layer rather than a piece to be picked up or discarded. It can't be completely forgotten; it just has other things built on top of it, and they both come around to the realization that things went south not because of any inherent hurt, but simply because they're still growing up. It's the sort of detail that rings true to life. Emotions take their own time to run their course — they're not dictated by knowing logically when something's over.

Of course, this is all the more complicated when it comes to family. Lady Bird's center is the relationship between Christine and her mother, and Metcalf's performance is a knockout. As there often is between a parent and a child, there's a fundamental disconnect in the way that they communicate with each other. There are the things that Christine wants to hear, and then, separate from them, there are the things that her mother is able to say. When Christine finally asks her mother if she likes her, it's a heartbreaking moment. She knows her mother loves her; that's guaranteed. But liking her isn't. 

It's difficult to make the passive-aggressive behavior that Christine's mother levels towards her seem sympathetic, but if anyone can do it, it's Metcalf. As hard as it may be to stomach — when Christine shows her a dress that she likes, she can't help but tell her she needs to lose weight if she really wants to wear it — it's obvious that everything is coming from a place of care. She wants what's best for her daughter; it's just that their ideas of what's best aren't quite aligned.

The entire production — from Lois Smith as one of the nuns at Lady Bird's Catholic school, or Stephen McKinley Henderson as the drama teacher — is full of a similar tenderness. The musical cues — including a completely un-ironic use of Dave Matthews' "Crash Into Me" and Stephen Sondheim as the artist of choice for the students' theater auditions — signal as much; despite how wrenching some of the scenes are, there's not a truly cruel bone in Lady Bird's body. The road to growth may be a painful one, but it's ultimately worth being able to come out on the other side with a clearer vision of oneself, and of one's home.

There are details scattered throughout that suggest something a little darker — again, the concern over the McPherson's financial situation is ever-present (as well as the sort of thing that's rarely addressed in contemporary cinema), as well as hints as to Christine's father (Tracy Letts) and his struggle with depression — but aside from that, Lady Bird is very sweet.

It's in this respect that the rest of the film falters. That danger is inherent in any story that's been told before: if there's nothing new brought to the telling, it's not particularly compelling to watch. It doesn't help that Metcalf's performance is like a gorgeous atomic bomb; the film's just not as interesting to watch when she's off-screen. But Lady Bird benefits from Gerwig's directorial touch, as she manages to keep old material compelling enough to last through to the parts of the film that truly shine.

To her credit, though, Ronan gives a great leading turn, making it clear just how Lady Bird is growing up as the things that had seemed so important to her through high school start becoming less and less important as she gets older. It helps that she doesn't fit the usual "quirky" mold that most female indie film protagonists fall into; she's a little bit of a rebel, with her dyed hair and new chosen name, but those are just outside signifiers. She's you or me — she's normal. Her need for more is likely one that everyone's felt at some point in their life, and it's particularly wrenching to watch as she tries to balance her wish to fly the coop with the inevitable consequence of leaving her mother behind. Home is ultimately where the heart is, no matter how prickly it may be.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10