Movie review: 'Lady Bird' is a witty teen comedy for an increasingly unfunny era

Saoirse Ronan is Lady Bird.

Saoirse Ronan is Lady Bird. Photo by Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24

With her bad skin, teen slouch, and cheap pink dye job, Christine McPherson appears as drab in her own way as the Sacramento hometown she can’t wait to flee for a fancy East Coast college.

But she rebels as best she can. She rechristens herself Lady Bird, scrawls “fuck you mom” on a pink cast after she injures herself in a snit, gobbles unconsecrated communion wafers in a Catholic school hallway, fumbles around with unworthy boys, and mouths off to her struggling mom.

It’s the mouthing off, along with the rest of what she gets to say, that most distinguishes Lady Bird, and the brilliant movie named for her. Writer and director Greta Gerwig’s script is as wickedly hyperverbal and hilarious as fans of her collaborations with Noah Baumbach would hope. Saoirse Ronan, as Lady Bird, catches the rhythm of the dialogue so that it sounds natural and impulsive rather than merely witty and stylized, blurting a line like “The only interesting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome” as though her mouth is racing to keep up with her brain.

Lady Bird is Gerwig’s directorial debut, and her pacing is brisk but never glib. Gerwig herself was raised in Sacramento, and she dotes on the unremarkable surroundings her characters casually inhabit, while offering just enough period detail to set us in the 2002-03 school year without overdoing it. Yes, coverage of the Iraq War bleeds from TVs and 9/11 is the stuff of offhand comments. (“What about terrorism?” Lady Bird’s BFF Julie wonders during a discussion of moving to New York. Lady Bird, dismissively: “Don’t be Republican.”) But an untimely 1996 Dave Matthews song figures heavily in the story as well.

While Lady Bird covers all the ground a coming-of-age movie must—sex and friendship and parental pressures and big dreams—it also understands how much the classics of the genre assumed a certain level of affluence that’s decreasingly within reach. All Lady Bird wants is to lead the careless teen life we’ve so long been sold as an American birthright, but the quietly suffering adults who surround her demand caution. “My job is to help you be realistic,” a guidance counselor tells Lady Bird after guffawing at her collegiate ambitions. “That seems like everyone’s job,” Lady Bird replies.

And so, Lady Bird endures the casual indignities of a working-class kid striving to pass as a “normal” one, shopping for thrift-store prom dresses, not inviting her better-off friends home, making self-deprecating jokes that come back to shame her parents. As her mother, Marion, the great Laurie Metcalf conceals a multitude of fears beneath a default grimace, among them a frustration with her inability to guarantee that her daughter’s life will be better than hers.

The story wraps up in a way that’s satisfying but neither overly neat nor final, with Lady Bird developing an appreciation of her hometown that Gerwig herself clearly shares. But though she’s rooting for this ambitious lower-middle-class teen, Gerwig also hints that Sacramento is the frontier of a dwindling American future. After all, if everything goes as planned, Lady Bird will graduate from college in 2008—just in time for the job market to crash and her parents’ refinanced mortgage to drive them underwater.

Lady Bird
directed by Greta Gerwig
now open, Uptown Theatre