A teenager with a fiercely independent streak navigates romance, friendship and other drama in her high school senior year. This tried-and-tested formula that has inspired numerous teen comedies and coming-of-age stories is elevated to a nuanced ode to love in Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird.

Christine Mc Pherson (Saoirse Ronan) wants to spread her wings. She dreams of bigger things and feels weighed down by her circumstances, both real and imagined. She asserts her identity in ways big and small, from dyeing her hair red to rechristening herself Lady Bird – “It’s [a name] given to me, by me”, she declares.

More than anything, Christine wants to break free from Sacramento, the Californian city where she has spent all her 17 years, and go to a place “where culture is”. She identifies New York as that place, but her mother disagrees. There are plenty of good colleges closer home and the family simply doesn’t have the money to send her so far away, her mother (Laurie Metcalf) argues. And so, Lady Bird decides to apply to scholarships to east coast colleges on the sly, with some help from her doting father (Tracy Letts).

Gerwig, already an accomplished actor and writer (among other films, she starred in and co-wrote Francis Ha and Mistress America , both directed by Noah Baumbach), now proves her merit as a director in this Oscar Best Picture-nominated comedy-drama.

Like in Baumbach’s films, New York is at the core of Lady Bird, but in ways that are more symbolic than literal. New York is the city of Lady Bird’s dreams, but her reality is Sacramento. The film, loosely inspired by Gerwig’s formative years, is a love letter to the city of her childhood. That’s also perhaps why the movie is set in 2002-’03, closer to the 34-year-old director’s own adolescence. It’s a time Gerwig recreates in precise detail, from the background score (Dave Mathews Band’s Crash Into Me emerges as a motif of sorts) to the magazine covers, fashion and even the posters in Lady Bird’s room.

Gerwig’s writing prowess also shines through: the dialogue is butter-smooth and manages to sound clever yet not contrived. For instance, while ruing the seeming mundaneness of her life and times, Lady Bird says, “The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome.”

At another point, when a romantic interest brings up the ongoing Iraq war to tell her not to sweat the small stuff, she shouts back: “Different things can be sad. It’s not all war.”

Love is explored in many forms in Lady Bird, whether it’s Christine’s romantic interests – played by Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalamet – or her relationship with best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) or even her ties to the city. But the emotional fulcrum of the film is Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother.

Lady Bird (2017). Credit: A24
Lady Bird (2017). Credit: A24

Marion is hard on Lady Bird, overly critical and often much too harsh. The movie commands empathy for both characters throughout, tugging the viewer towards Lady Bird’s point of view at some instances and Marion’s in others. Though there is hardly a scene that does not have Ronan in it, the narrative subtly weaves in and out of her mind. One moment, the viewer is seeing the world through her perspective and the next, you see Lady Bird from the outside, warts and all, as she snubs her best friend, behaves petulantly and disregards her parents’ feelings.

In a short runtime of about 90 minutes, Lady Bird emerges as a fully realised film as Gerwig manages to pack in tones of wisdom and sketch a nuanced picture of not just the protagonists but also the supporting characters. The performances elevate the film further: 24-year-old Ronan shows acting prowess far beyond her age and Metcalf, with her expressions and emotions, manages to convey much more than what her few lines do.

Gerwig seems to take great delight in overturning cliches. Her directorial debut brims with emotion and talent and is a success precisely because it takes something trite and manages to make it novel.

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Lady Bird.