Lady Bird
Directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Odeya Rush, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Timothée Chalamet
Rated R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying
1 hr. 34 min.

Coming-of-age films are part of the go-to formulas that account for so many movies made for young people, movies that intend to teach a lesson, but more often than not deliver a corn harvest of which any farm in Iowa would be proud. Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) has seen to it that Lady Bird, her first outing as a writer-director, stands high above the usual crop.

Lady Bird is not just the product of Gerwig’s imagination. It’s more autobiographical. It’s frank, witty, intelligent and, by its end, filled with the warmth and poignancy that “lesson” movies seek, but often do not find. Above all, it has the astonishing Saoirse Ronan in the title role, Emmy and Tony winner Laurie Metcalf as her obdurately direct mother, and Tracy Letts as her pliable, doting father.

Lady Bird is the name she gives herself. She’s really Christine McPherson, a Catholic high school senior at “Immaculate Fart,” as she calls it, living with her parents, her brother, Miguel, and his monosyllabic girlfriend. At 23 years old, Ronan is a two-time Oscar nominee, who brought smiles to our faces in 2015’s wonderful Brooklyn. If there is a single regret about her performance, it’s that her American accent is so animated and so good: Ronan’s natural Irish brogue is intoxicating.

The relationship between mother and daughter is difficult. They are both blunt-spoken and sardonic, answering one another with razor-sharp rejoinders. Yet they are extremely likable. You root for them to somehow get over it. Lady Bird has grown so weary of Sacramento, she dreams of leaving “the Midwest of California” and attending college back east. There’s a glitch in her plans, however: The McPhersons are less than lower-middle class, and her father is recently unemployed.

As her senior year moves along, Lady Bird tries expanding her horizons by hanging with the “cool kids,” the wealthier classmates, a social-strata tableau that’s also part and parcel for most youth-oriented cinema. As written by Gerwig, however, and interpreted by Ronan, the marvel that is Metcalf, and a talented cast of young actors (Beanie Feldstein, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet and Odeya Rush), the plots and performances are neither perfunctory nor mawkish. Ronan’s Lady Bird handles herself through joy and pain, and ultimately self-realization, as a person wiser than her years.

Lady Bird is a smart film, set around 2002-03 so that, as Gerwig has said, the relationships would be unimpeded by today’s social media culture. Notwithstanding, the messages can be absorbed without fear of going into insulin shock. In one scene, a teacher, Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith in a fine, spare performance) counsels Lady Bird with this response to a question: “Aren’t they the same thing? Love and attention?” You get it. So real, so authentic, it is a lesson that sneaks up on you.

If you know someone from Sacramento who might be offended by the verbal grenades lobbed its way in Lady Bird, fear not. Though the movie opens with a semi-poisonous barb from writer Joan Didion, the state capital fares better than you would think. Greta Gerwig is from there. Her mother’s name is Christine, like Lady Bird, and she’s a nurse, like Lady Bird’s mom. A talented actress in her own right, with a range beyond her quirkiness, we hope this is just the start of a long directorial career for Gerwig. With Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf to imbue her material, her first effort behind the camera should get plenty of “love and attention” prior to awards season.