Lady Bird, writer/director Greta Gerwig's semi-autobiographical debut feature film, offers an astute, clever, often funny, and poignant portrait of the teenage transition to adulthood. It's 2002 as Gerwig zeroes in on Christine who has given herself the name Lady Bird, thereby taking control of her identity even while she struggles exploring and defining it.
Originally titled "Mothers and Daughters," the heart of the film is continuous conflict between Lady Bird and her mother Marion, who reveals her own challenging upbringing when she describes her mother as "an abusive alcoholic." A senior at Immaculate Conception High School, Lady Bird longs to move far away from Marion and home town Sacramento, what she contemptuously calls "the Midwest of California." At Telluride where I first saw Lady Bird, Gerwig described this film as "a love letter to a place that only came into focus after I left."
Dropping into Lady Bird's life over the course of a year, Gerwig identified one theme as time rushing forward, "one scene tumbling into the next," which they do in a revealing shorthand. Brief moments communicate volumes about values--betrayals of friends, discovery of sex, secret support from her father amidst continuous conflict with her mother from whom she must disengage to realize herself, even while acknowledging several times that her mother has a good heart. So does Lady Bird, as she will find, especially when she shows empathy for a boyfriend. Gerwig observes that the mother/daughter conflict is so contentious, which it surely is, because they're so close.
Supporting characters are established as three dimensional (as opposed to stereotypes) in very brief dialogue exchanges: Lady Bird's father Larry and Sister Sarah Joan, for example. All of the performances, especially Saoirse Ronan's as Lady Bird, Laurie Metcalf's as Marion, Tracy Letts' as Larry, and Lucas Hedges' as boyfriend Danny are Oscar caliber. So too the technical presentation with the camera capturing but never intruding into scenes. Similarly, the sound track artfully adds commentary without ever feeling intrusive. The title itself comes from the Mother Goose nursery rhyme Ladybird, Ladybird about running home to save a child.
Gerwig wanted to portray universal truth in a small story. She's achieved that and more--a thoroughly entertaining film in a smashing feature film debut -- one with heart and soul.