‘Lady Bird’ Is A Master Class In Finding The Universal In The Specific

No matter how many movies I see, leaving a bad movie is always intensely alienating, as if I don’t understand humanity and maybe never will. Leaving a good movie is always personal and cathartic, the feeling that someone somewhere gets it, and the promise that we’ll all be able to understand each other if only we can tell our stories just right. And that’s not so hard is it?

Greta Gerwig sure makes it look easy in Lady Bird. Having played muse to a number of beloved indie auteurs, from Noah Baumbach to Whit Stillman to Woody Allen — almost always in films that have “New York” in the one-sentence synopsis and from which you can detect a strong whiff of Woody Allen, even just from the posters — Gerwig is strictly behind the camera this time, directing her own script, a coming-of-age tale set in her own hometown — Sacramento — during the time in which she herself came of age, the early 2000s.

Maybe it’s because she’s not working with New York characters and a New York script. Maybe it’s because Lady Bird seems like the first of her movies not to feature bubbly intellectuals discussing philosophy next to a park, that Lady Bird feels like both a departure from and an improvement over her past work (which includes co-writing credits on Frances Ha, Mistress America, and others in addition to her acting). Gerwig’s lead, the angsty, dramatic, self-nicknamed “Lady Bird” (neé Christine), played by Saoirse Ronan, feels like an undisguised version of Gerwig herself (the sense of a beautiful woman not quite formed is uncanny, complete with greasy hair and faint acne). The first scene sees her in the car with her mom (Laurie Metcalf), both of them crying over the audiocassette version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes Of Wrath.

Once it’s over they start to argue, and the film says more about their relationship with action than it does with words. Lady Bird‘s characters are emotive without being expansive, which helps make the film feel simultaneously more personal and less indulgent than Gerwig vehicles past. Gerwig may claim to idolize Woody Allen as a writer, but Lady Bird‘s characters wouldn’t be caught dead having a “turgid discussion about categorical imperatives.” Mostly they’re sullen teens and exhausted adults, reading Howard Zinn at the coffee shop and describing parties as “hella tight.” Lady Bird‘s dialogue is far more reminiscent of Richard Linklater, cinema’s foremost dumbass whisperer, than Allen — though it tends to feel more natural than either.

Lady Bird feuds with her mother, who takes Lady Bird’s arch teenage deprecations, like saying she lives “on the wrong side of the track” as a personal attack. (“Your father is depressed, did you know that?”) Lady Bird moons over misguided crushes, envies the town rich girl (Odeya Rush), and goes hot and cold with her tragic bestie (Beanie Feldstein). Gerwig also casts Tracy Letts, a playwright and character actor who specializes in the “disapproving authority figure,” brilliantly against type as Lady Bird’s good guy father, trying desperately to translate the love between Lady Bird and her mother that they annoy each other too much to convey directly.

On paper, none of these plot points sound especially groundbreaking, but Gerwig sketches them with such loving, excruciating detail (the clothes, the language, the ska) that it feels like she’s the only person who could’ve written it. There’s a leitmotif involving The Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash,” a country-themed dance with a “save a horse, ride a cowboy” shirt, and a backdrop of muted-but-ever-present post-9/11 patriotism. You might wince from the familiarity of it, but Lady Bird‘s cultural references are always the icing, never the cake, and it never feels like one of those checklist-of-references movies.

It never drags and there’s scarcely a moment of the film that’s out of place. My notebook was blank at the end, too caught up in it for analytical thought. Coming out of it, the group I was with argued about who the film truly “belonged” to. One was a woman the same age as the protagonist. Another had gone to UC Davis, just outside Sacramento. I thought it was me, having grown up in the landlocked center of California and moved to New York. Lady Bird calls Sacramento “the Midwest of California,” whereas I grew up outside Fresno, which I think of as the Texas of California. Gerwig seems like she must’ve been away from home for a long time, to be so sentimental about the place.

We all had our connections, but it’s not the details themselves that matter, it’s the feeling behind them. There are a million coming-of-age tales. Lady Bird‘s secret sauce is how deeply its creator gave a shit. The older I get, the less I care about anything but the sense of a filmmaker’s personal connection to the material. It doesn’t matter what it’s about, what genre it is, or whether it’s genre at all. I only really care that it feels like something the filmmaker had to tell me, and that it was that filmmaker in particular who had to tell it. It has to answer the “why are you telling me this” question, and not just why are you telling me, but why are you telling me.

Lady Bird is a movie that feels like only Greta Gerwig could’ve made. And it’s only because it’s so specific to her that it can be so meaningful to so many people.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.