Greta Gerwig's Talents Don't Fully Translate In Directorial Debut "Lady Bird"

The decade-long ascendance of actor and writer Greta Gerwig culminates in her semi-autobiographical directorial debut “Lady Bird.” Culminates, but doesn’t peak.

Gerwig’s script and screen work on “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” and her performances in “Maggie’s Plan” and “20th Century Women” illuminated a once in a generation talent with both comedic chops and honest-to-God likability. (Most funny people are self-admitted assholes, after all.) But Gerwig has shown an almost preternatural ability to relay nearly any emotion or blend of emotions imaginable, be it as a writer or performer, all while radiating charm. That’s not to mention her knack for wickedly funny, pointed turns of phrase.

“Lady Bird” on the other hand, starring Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn”) as the writer-director’s titular avatar, bleeds restraint, some of it justifiable. Directorial debuts from known commodities are traditionally risk averse; would-be auteurs understandably reluctant to lay it all on the line the first time behind the camera. But the relative safeness of Gerwig’s debut – its hesitance to indulge its quirkier instincts – flies in the face of her greatest strengths.

The result is a charming but mild comedy defined by a nice performance from Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s mother Marion and a handful of appreciably relatable millennial moments.

It’s 2002 and we’re in stubbornly nondescript Sacramento, California. Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Ronan) is adrift in a sea of university applications, flaky friends, and a tumultuous family life reflective of her own senioritis. With her dad (Tracy Letts) emotionally unavailable, Lady Bird avoids looking to her ever preoccupied mom for guidance. Marion, a nurse, is busy struggling with the family’s finances – not just a painful reality, but a wrench in the works of our protagonist’s dream of going far away from home for college.

Although the film features some creative whiplash-style editing, Lady Bird’s caterpillar-to-worldlier-caterpillar arc is roundly conventional, seeing her through rocky times with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and the perils of young love. A fellow drama enthusiast named Danny (Lucas Hedges) captures her heart; a hipster named Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) earns her lust.

At the center of these familiar narrative beats is Ronan, a very good actor with great poise, reliably called upon to play characters older than her. As such, the 23-year-old is a curious fit to play a high school senior. While not as extreme as a 34-year-old playing a Rydell High Pink Lady, Ronan’s inherent maturity works against the immature behavior of her character, like sobbing over a break-up to Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me.” This leaves it to Metcalf, forever a master of acting with the eyes, to elevate a film she’s hardly in.

Gerwig does make as strong a case as has ever been made for Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” not being a bad song, but like the movie it’s in, it’s an argument that falls just short of convincement.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: November 3, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: Focus Features
Director: Greta Gerwig
Screenwriter: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Lois Smith, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Odeya Rush, Jordan Rodrigues, Marielle Scott
MPAA Rating: R (for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying)