Ordinary events are imbued with warmth and beauty in Lady Bird (cert 15, 94 mins, ★★★★★), a coming-of-age tale by Greta Gerwig. Her solo directorial debut is a finely judged period piece, which proves, as if there were any doubt, that it is already possible to be nostalgic about 2002.
Teenager Christine (Saoirse Ronan) possesses an outlandish individuality, of which “Lady Bird”, a name she chooses for herself, is a typical assertion. She is in her final year at Immaculate Heart of Mary, a Catholic school in Sacramento, California, which her family struggles to pay the fees for. Ashamed of her poor background and afraid of being average, she envies her neighbours’ lavish houses.
American economic decline and the war in Iraq are foregrounded at various points (a hand-made poster in her school reads “9/11: Never Forget”). But Lady Bird is never bleak, because it shows us the support network which ultimately protects the teenager. Her parents are happily married, her school is understanding and she has a best friend, the sweet Julie (Beanie Feldstein). Her father (Tracy Letts) possesses what might be the kindliest dad’s eyes ever seen on screen.
Lady Bird celebrates the comfort of community. Ronan’s character is quirky and sometimes sad, but she is never alone. Yet it is nuanced enough to acknowledge that the same community does not always work as well as it should. In a hospital meeting room, Christine’s mother (Laurie Metcalf), a nurse, is approached by the obviously distressed Fr Leviatch. When she asks him: “Who do you turn to when you feel this way?” He tellingly replies: “No one, I guess.”
One wonders how personal the screenplay is to its writer. Like Lady Bird, Gerwig went to a Catholic school in Sacramento and her mother is a nurse.
But Lady Bird is without the note of self-indulgence that marred Frances Ha (2012) or Mistress America (2015), both of which Gerwig co-wrote and starred in. Every character is given the space it needs. When Sister Sarah Joan, vice-principal at Immaculate Heart, suggests to Lady Bird that she writes about her home town with great affection, she says: “I guess I pay attention.” The Sister asks “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing?” It’s dialogue to make you stop and think.
Irked by its slightly pat trailer, I wanted to dislike Lady Bird. But the script, cast and direction – both heartfelt and sharp – makes critical venom impossible.
But a note of caution. When leaving the cinema after a film as glorious as this, real life – in my case, the cold bustle of Shaftesbury Avenue – can deliver a momentary shock. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.