★★★★ LADY BIRD Greta Gerwig's luminous coming-of-age movie
Greta Gerwig, in her hugely acclaimed, semi-autobiographical directing debut (a Golden Globe for best director, five Academy Award nominations) opens Lady Bird with a Joan Didion quote: “Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”
Brits may well think the place doesn’t look that bad, what with all the sunshine, big houses and swimming-pools, but 17-year-old Lady Bird (a delicate, acne-scarred Saoirse Ronan in a brilliant performance), who describes it as the mid-west of California, is keen to get the hell out of there. She longs to go college in New York “where culture is,” as she tells her mother, Marion (the impressive Laurie Metcalf, a mainstay on Roseanne for decades), or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, where “writers live in the woods”.
Class and money are major themes, though always in a minor key
This is 2002 and although Lady Bird (real name Christine; with typical feistiness she tells a priest at her Catholic school that Lady Bird is her given name, “Given to me by me”) doesn’t get good grades, she reckons that maybe 9/11 will improve her chances of getting in to NYU as applications are down due to terrorism. She is at odds, as teenagers are, with her mother, a hard-working nurse, who’s always reminding her how poor the family is and nagging at her to tidy her room, but they’re still close and Marion is desperate for her daughter to stay in California. Her much more laid-back dad (Tracy Letts) is keen to help out with loans for her East Coast aspirations, even though he’s lost his job and is struggling with depression.
Gerwig has co-written (and starred in) other films – Frances Ha and Mistress America with Noah Baumbach – but this is the first to be entirely written by her. It’s full of affection for her home town, though a bit short on specific details – you don’t get much a feel for the place apart from underwhelming views of bridges, highways and parking lots, but maybe that’s the point – and for Christine’s lovably imperfect family. Her adopted older brother (Jordan Rodrigues) – the adoption part is, confusingly, never spelled out: from interviews, it’s clear that Gerwig knows the backstory and we don’t – and his girlfriend Shelly (newcomer Marielle Scott), are also living at home. Both are heavily pierced (“You’ll never get real jobs with those things in your faces,” Christine tells them in a moment of rage) and working at the local supermarket, trying to find employment after graduating from Berkeley.Sometimes it all feels too glowingly whimsical, a bit Little Miss Sunshine, and there are flabby moments, especially in the relationship between Christine and her dad. Her mother’s harshness (she tells her daughter that because she looks like trash, this will affect her father’s employment chances) sometimes seems exaggerated and off-key. But there are so many excellent performances that you’re carried along: Lucas Hedges as her sweet first boyfriend, whose grandmother lives in Christine’s dream house on the right side of the tracks (class and money are major themes, though always in a minor key); Timothée Chalamet (star of Call Me By Your Name) as her super-cool, careless second one (pictured above). He’s prone to such statements as “I’m trying to live by bartering and not participate in the economy,” and talks about Iraq just after they've had sex for the first time. “Different things can be sad. It’s not all war,” retorts Christine.
And there are lots of laughs: she and her best friend Julie (the wonderful Beanie Feldstein) lying on the floor, giggling and eating communion wafers straight from the jar; Christine’s fury at being given the non-speaking part of “Tempest” in the school production of The Tempest; her misplaced confidence in her maths ability. When she briefly goes over to the dark side, seduced by the allure of gorgeous, popular, moronic Jenna (Odeya Rush) whose horizons don’t extend beyond Sacramento, you feel Julie’s pain, and also Christine’s.
Against the odds (and it means remortaging the house) Christine does get into college in New York and the film becomes a farewell to childhood, with a wrenching scene at the airport as her mother struggles with the loss. We see Christine partying in Greenwich Village, drinking too much, giving up that given name of hers and seeing Sacramento through new, more thankful eyes. Not ground-breaking territory, but, as one of the kindly nuns tells Christine, love is all about paying attention.