“I wish I could live through something.”
So sighs Christine McPherson, the spiky, moody, flawed and delightful protagonist of “Lady Bird.” The movie takes its title from the name Christine has bestowed upon herself during her senior year at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, which she sniffily dubs “the Midwest of California.” Everything’s terrible in Lady Bird’s life right now: Her educational prospects (she wants to go east but will probably end up at the local community college); her love life (it’s complicated in the pre-Facebook sense of the term); and especially her mother, whose daily doses of doubt, anxiety and engulfing unconditional love put Lady Bird in a swivet of head-spinning mixed messages.
As a funny, poignant dramatization of a year in the life of an American teenager, “Lady Bird” follows the usual coming-of-age arc of missteps, regrets and amusing reckonings. But in the hands of Greta Gerwig, who makes her solo writing and directing debut here, what might have been a by-the-numbers proposition turns out to be fizzily funny and wistfully affecting, a story whose familiar contours nevertheless contain something utterly original and revelatory. Gerwig became famous as an actress in films by such observant generational chroniclers as Joe Swanberg and Noah Baumbach; it’s tempting — and not a little bit sexist — to believe that she’s learned at the feet of the masters. The insight and assurance of “Lady Bird” suggests that it was she lending wisdom and taste to her male colleagues all along.
“Lady Bird” opens on a lovely shot of the title character, played by Saoirse Ronan, sleeping face-to-face with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). They’re in a motel while touring college campuses; on the way home, an idle conversation escalates into a heated argument, culminating in Lady Bird opening the door of the moving car and diving out.
Anyone who’s lived within the emotional cyclone known as adolescence will recognize the vertiginous highs and lows of “Lady Bird,” which follows our heroine — who affects pink-streaked hair, thrift-chic clothes and an alternately sour and slightly tart demeanor — through a year that includes auditions for a Stephen Sondheim school musical; a romance with a sweet, gangly co-star (played by Lucas Hedges); a flirtation with a Howard Zinn-reading bad boy (Timothée Chalamet); and an ongoing battle royal with her mother and father (Tracy Letts) regarding the family’s straitened finances and her own angst and ambitions.
Ronan, the Irish actress who delivered such a delicate, gossamer-light performance in “Brooklyn,” completely transforms herself here into an entitled American teenager circa 2003, when Dave Matthews, Alanis Morissette and clove cigarettes were retro-cool. Filmed on location in Gerwig’s home town of Sacramento, “Lady Bird” invokes the city’s other famous daughter, Joan Didion, right off the bat — an homage that informs a movie that feels like a fond look back and a final nail, simultaneously. There are moments that are wincingly painful to watch in the film, most of them involving the barely hidden agony of Marion, portrayed with a remarkable combination of grit, vulnerability and panicked concern by Metcalf. With a superb ear and eye for detail, combined with a whip-smart knack for structure and pacing, Gerwig captures the parts of life that are both banal and deeply hurtful, never betraying her characters with a wink to the audience that they’ll laugh about them later.
Joining the ranks of Elaine May and Nicole Holofcener, Gerwig keeps “Lady Bird” afloat with a steady stream of knowing humor — not only at the hands of its blissfully self-confident title character, but also thanks to her sweet best friend, Julie, played in a dazzling breakout performance by Beanie Feldstein, whose name Gerwig might have had to invent had it not already come marquee-ready. The scenes of Lady Bird and Julie crying, giggling, fighting and dancing are chief among the myriad pleasures of “Lady Bird,” which looks and feels so natural that viewers might mistakenly think it was easy. This kind of spontaneity, honesty and humor — and performances as focused and on-point as each one in the film — are anything but. “Lady Bird” is a triumph of style, sensibility and spirit. The girl at its center may not be a heavyweight, but her movie is epic.
R. At area theaters. Contains obscenity, sexuality, brief graphic nudity and teen partying. 93 minutes.