Though Lady Bird spends the arc of the film driving people away from her, she’s given immense charm by Ronan. She feels powerless under her parents’ roof, but in the masterful facial control of Metcalf’s Marion, it’s apparent how deeply she can hurt her mother. Her mistakes, and there are many, aren’t greeted with a sneer by the viewer, but with disappointment. Without a movie star’s make-up and air-brushing (all the teenage actors have visible acne), Lady Bird becomes a real person, physically and emotionally believable as a surly teenager. More than anything, in an asset attributable to Gerwig’s leadership, she has excellent chemistry with everyone she plays against. Even in her most abrasive moments, there’s a base level of affection for her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) or her mother, visible in how her resolute expression cracks just a bit after going over the line or in how the mother-daughter relationship can instantly go from tempestuous to loving. It’s in the going too far and then walking it back that Ronan is able to keep the viewer on Lady Bird’s side. She’s wrong in the moment but some kind of success or satisfaction remains the rooted-for goal for the character.
That base level of good things is a rooting interest for everyone in Lady Bird, another accomplishment for a script by Gerwig that makes time for as many characters as possible. Julie has her own movie happening within Lady Bird’s, where she struggles with a family in worse economic shape than the McPherson’s and a crush on a teacher. Larry’s coping with depression caused by sustained unemployment, while Marion juggles her daughter with her static adult son and her role as the sole breadwinner. Danny is just a good kid hiding a depth of sadness beneath his buoyant exterior, but who couldn’t be good with a warm grandmother like his (non-actor Joan O’Neill). The staff at the school aren’t spared from Gerwig’s generosity. She creates a tiny ecosystem within the religious staff, building heartfelt scenes for Stephen McKinley Henderson’s drama teacher and for Lois Smith’s skirt-measuring dean of students. The film has that particular quality of containing a whole universe within its walls, where an equally great story could be built around anyone inhabiting them.
Within the wide world of Gerwig’s Sacramento, Lady Bird still hits all the high notes of coming-of-age films. The film takes place over the course of the entire year, with all the milestones associated with the end of high school and childhood. There are first loves and virginities lost, the fracturing of friendships that were supposed to last forever and the forging of new ones. Raucous theater wrap parties are held in diners, and teens lock eyes to the new Justin Timberlake song. There’s a prom because there must be. Lady Bird certainly thinks she’s unique and eccentric, but Gerwig finds the beauty and profundity in the fact that she’s living a recognizable and therefore previously-lived life. It’s no less significant for its sameness, especially when these typical moments are invested with so much verve by the script and the actors.
By choosing to make Lady Bird about the McPherson’s, Gerwig also dials into the class dynamics of Sacramento and how suffocating it is for the family to live in the shadow of things beyond their reach. The film echoes the iconic closing monologue of The Hurt Locker, where the possibilities of a person’s life gradually recede down to fewer and fewer alternatives. Lady Bird sees how her parents are locked into the lives they’re leading now, and is terrified of a similar end for herself. Her richer peers, which are most of them, don’t have that same sense of limits. The parenting in the upper strata comes across of more permissive for that reason; it’s harder for their children to fail so they can let them make more mistakes. Marion behaves in the opposite fashion, where failure is a real possibility and the safety of aiming low becomes the most valuable strategy. Big dreams are for mommy-daughter days, where she and Lady Bird heartbreakingly dress up and go to the showings of homes that they’re never going to live in.
As if the indelible characters or the class stuff or the world-building wasn’t enough, Lady Bird still finds time to strike a blow against the can-do know-nothingness of fluffier teen films and the preening potential Lloyd Dobbler’s that teen films often shorthand as cool. For Lady Bird, whatever self-actualization means is all well and good, but it doesn’t mean the world has to kowtow to it. Her brother (Jordan Rodrigues) has, in the parlance of Vincent Vega, a bunch of shit in his face, an idiosyncrasy he can probably defend but that also isn’t helping him get a job in his chosen field of software engineering. The decidedly uncool Dave Matthews Band comes up a few times, and the conflict is whether or not characters that we know are fans can admit to it in front of cooler crowds. Both tacks align, where things like appearance and tastes are well and good, but they’re not enough on their own. Lady Bird chooses her own name, but she’s still the person her parents raised her to be, no matter what kind of sheen she puts on.
At its heart, Gerwig’s sublime film is one about a mother and a daughter. It’s there that Gerwig strikes hottest, aided by Ronan’s charisma and Metcalf’s complete mastery of her character. They’re the same people at different times in their life, occasionally in synch but often at odds. The signature scene of Lady Bird is its simplest, a camera on Marion’s face in close-up, and it’s a killer. The viewer can see complicated and conflicting thoughts wash over Marion as she contemplates her role in her daughter’s past and her future. In a remarkable display of restraint, Gerwig skips on big moments and instead invests a great deal of her film’s considerable power in these simple ones. The characters in Lady Bird are often disappointed, but the viewer can only leave the film enchanted and anxious to see what Gerwig will do next. Topping this seems impossible. A