If you’ve been following independent American film for the past few years, you know who Greta Gerwig is. Like a lot of young movie stars – Brie Larson, Carey Mulligan and Jennifer Lawrence come to mind – Gerwig brings a fresh presence to the big screen. Yet while all these actresses boast an undeniable level of talent, the presence that Gerwig presents is singular.
Think of her in “Frances Ha,” a film she co-wrote with Noah Baumbach, which Baumbach directed. Her character in that film defines the model of a character she has since played in various versions. As Chicago-based critic Ray Pride described it, “Gerwig draws upon her well of previously-demonstrated charisma, her ample capacity for twerpitude refined, honed, elevated.”
What a word: “twerpitude.” But it fits, just as it would have had anyone applied it to Diane Keaton in “Annie Hall.” And let’s be clear: It’s not an insult. I agree with Pride that Gerwig’s character is “precious,” causing you to laugh, to gasp and even to love.
The same can be true, both more and less, in such films as “Greenberg,” “Mistress America” and “Maggie’s Plan.” And now, in her first attempt at being a writer-director, it applies as well to the title character in her film “Lady Bird.”
Played by the Irish actress Saiorse Ronan – displaying, it must be pointed out, an impeccable American accent – Lady Bird is a high school senior attending a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. It’s worth pointing out, too, that the school is Catholic, which Lady Bird attends on scholarship, both because of the school’s continual referrals to priests, nuns and regular mass and because of Lady Bird’s antipathy to anything religious.
The Sacramento reference is important because the film ultimately becomes a love letter to that central California city, a place that Lady Bird expresses a yearning to leave most of the way through.
Lady Bird isn’t even her real name. It’s Christine. But as she explains while auditioning for a school play, “I gave it to myself. It was given to me by me.”
And there it is: Lady Bird’s particular self-focus, a characteristic that puts her at odds, at one time or another, with everyone she comes in contact with: her adopted brother, her teachers, her best friend and especially her mother, played by an actress too long missing from film, Laurie Metcalf.
As an aside, she does NOT come in conflict with her father, played with uncommon compassion by the stage actor/director Tracy Letts. Letts’ character, who has his own back story, is the link between mother and daughter who, from the opening frames, are at each other’s throats.
Mom displays that kind of clinging, critical kind of love that the insistently independent Lady Bird bridles against. And their ongoing conflict, especially over Lady Bird’s desire to go to an eastern college, is the basis on which writer-director Gerwig bases her film.
Told in brief passages, with many sequences being rendered in a kind of cinematic shorthand – the kinds of cut-cut-cuts that give a sense of context without feeling the need for further explanation – “Lady Bird” the movie feels both busy and economical at once.
What Gerwig has done is skillfully create a world where her characters can fully develop, whether they be dad struggling with late-career disappointment, one of Lady Bird’s friends struggling with his sexual orientation, mom regularly working two shifts as a psychiatric nurse just to keep the family afloat – or Lady Bird herself, perfectly portrayed by Ronan, feeling the need to discover a self that knows life has more to it than Sacramento can ever offer.
Her stumbling efforts to fulfill that need bring to mind a word that I used earlier in this review: Those effort may be awkward and, at times, maddeningly frustrating. But they are, in the end … precious.