Most teenage characters are unbelievably precocious. Teens of the big (The Fault In Our Stars, Edge of Seventeen) and small screen (Riverdale, Awkward) today, in comedies especially made for and marketed to actual teenagers, are indebted to the Juno MacGuffs, Seth Cohens and Rory Gilmores of recent pop culture past. Their unfold like self-serious, mini soap-operas. They’re quick-witted and snarky, seemingly wiser than their parents and teachers, and in every moment of their existences on screen you can just see the handiwork of their much older adult creators.
In Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, the titular teen character possesses none of these qualities. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a charmingly earnest, pink-haired high-schooler in 2002, who has instructed her family and friends at her Catholic high school to inexplicably call her “Lady Bird.” And though she’s destined to stay in her hometown Sacramento for college, Christine dreams of attending one of those “East Coast liberal arts schools” where she presumes people spend all their time writing in the woods, even as her parents (Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts) struggle to make ends meet after her father loses his job.
If Christine’s story sounds familiar, I’ll say now that it’s true Lady Bird is a textbook coming-of-age movie. Its main character is propelled constantly by a desire to be something bigger than she is, trying on new identities and friends as if they were the rumpled-up sweaters on the bedroom floor (which her mother keeps yelling at her to fold.) One moment Lady Bird is in a school theater production, cuddling up to her giggly co-star and sensitive boyfriend Danny (Lucas Hedges); the next she has her eyes set on the brooding, black turtleneck-wearing musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), who always happens to be smoking a cigarette and reading a copy of A People’s History of the United States even in the middle of a crowded house party.
But it’s Gerwig’s writing and first-time directing here that makes Lady Bird feel new even if we’ve already seen this sort of story, or perhaps even lived its storylines. Gerwig famously emerged in the mid-’00s from the“mumblecore” school of acting which encouraged and privileged improvisation, often to an unsurprisingly bumbling and lo-fi effect. But while she and her contemporaries—the Duplass brothers, Joe Swanberg, even Lena Dunham—have graduated into making work that feels far more conventional than their more meandering, earlier films, Gerwig’s screenwriting has successfully retained the exciting, hyperrealistic spark of her early work.
Gerwig worked on Lady Bird’s script for years, and there’s no mistaking this movie for a DIY project that’s been cobbled together on the fly. But there’s an unfiltered naturalism to this movie that falls in line with her work on previous films Frances Ha and Mistress America, and it can only come from a writer-director who is disinterested in writing her teen characters condescendingly. Based somewhat on Gerwig’s own adolescence growing up in Sacramento, Lady Bird strikes a sweet, delicate balance between playing up these teenagers’ natural naïveté for comedic effect, but never portraying them as laughably clueless.
“My mother said French wasn’t useful,” Lady Bird says, during her first, real romantic moment with her crush Danny outside a school dance. “It is if you’re going to Paris,” he replies with a smile. The dialogue is both cute and ridiculous, since you know the only conception of romance these two high school juniors possess, in that moment, is a hazy idea of Paris. And frequently, Lady Bird attempts to mold her life into some semblance of theatrical drama. “Come here often?” she tells Danny, when she first saunters up to him in the grocery store before explaining, in a line she certainly learned from a movie: “I’m from the other side of the tracks!” Ronan, who is 23, nails the goofier mannerisms of teenagedom so perfectly, particularly when she’s acting opposite her character’s best friend Julie, played by Beanie Feldstein. The two have mastered the art of unadulterated giggle fits, which occur over cheddar-cheese binges and dips into the school’s Eucharist supplies.
But Lady Bird’s realism doesn’t begin and end with its lovably awkward set of teen characters. As Lady Bird charges towards her goal of being accepted to a fancy private college, she hides her applications from her mother. We know that the film’s main character has no idea what’s in store for her in her soon-to-be-adult life, but it’s Marion’s job to tell her this bluntly, perhaps sometimes cruelly. “I just want you to be the best version of yourself,” Marion tells her daughter, at one point as the two search for a prom dress. “What if this is the best version of me?” Lady Bird replies, shoulders slumped, eyeliner smeared, before disappearing into a dressing room.
It’s in these scenes that the film reminds us it’s not just a story about a teenage girl’s larger-than-life aspirations, but one that addresses the impossibilities of that dream—and who, exactly, has the financial and geographical means to make them real. But Gerwig leaves us with a happy ending, albeit not one that plays out like those Hollywood dreams up. Because while our heroine Lady Bird may not be perfect, neither are real teenagers.