Joan Didion’s title quote in Lady Birdsomething to the extent that people who think Californians are hedonists should spend a Christmas in Sacramentosays more about Didion’s anhedonia than our state capital. River light, bountiful shade trees, bars galore, warm nights and bike-friendly streets: perhaps they’re having a better time out there than they’re letting on.
Native daughter Greta Gerwig’s enchanting debut as director isn’t just a fine comedy about a singular girl’s senior year in 2002. It’s also a good-looking movie about a city that deserves admiration, with the gilded Tower Bridge seen at dawn, green fields, grand houses, and a catalogue of the place’s vintage neon signs displayed to Jon Brion’s score.
Catholic-school senior Christine (Saoirse Ronan, with two-toned hair and a little spray of acne) cooked up the name “Lady Bird” for herself. She’s ashamed of her one-bathroom home and Sacto in general: “It’s soul-killing. The Midwest of California.” Like any 17-year-old, she can’t figure out what’s infuriating her embittered, overworked mother. Mom (Roseanne‘s Laurie Metcalf, excellent) is in that dance of clinging and pushing away that goes on when a kid is about to leave the nest. Lady Bird cherishes romantic dreams of heading back East to schooland her family barely has the money to send her to UC Davis.
Thanks to the scripting and Ronan’s acting, we’re on Lady Bird’s side even as she starts to become a pill, social climbing for friendships with the jaded rich kids around her, including a limpid, too-cool boyfriend (Timothée Chalamet). If this is semi-autobiographical, and if Gerwig’s parents underestimated her, we all did. Gerwig has played numerous characters who aren’t as smart as she must be, particularly for her friend and director Noah Baumbach. Gerwig is zany, sure, lovable, absolutelybut the sharp and measured perspective on a girl’s life is a surprise. It’s a good thing when the worst that can be said of a movie is it should have been longerthis one does nine months in 90 minutes, and one of the stubs is the unfinished story of a theater-teaching priest (Stephen Henderson, Fences) who has a breakdown.
But Lady Bird is like thatone wants more time with every shrewd, warm-heated scene. This generous comedy, with its focus on a girl’s life, is better than the kind of films they don’t make anymore. It’s the low-budget, high-incandescence movie we’re all told it’s impossible to make today.
90 min. R
The Guild, Menlo Park