by Nathan Blake
It might seem strange to call Lady Bird a love-letter to Sacramento, but it is exactly that. First-time director Greta Gerwig, who also wrote the script, uses an intimate scope to capture the complexities of her hometown, and the result is one of the best films of the year.
The film follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson’s (Saoirse Ronan) senior-year quest to escape Sacramento by applying to colleges in New York. Raised in a Christian but not especially devout home by her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) and father Larry (Tracey Letts), Christine is desperate to escape the life they have struggled to provide for her. She makes no effort to hide her shame over the size and location of her parents’ house and the old, but well-maintained, Toyota her mom drives. She despises her Catholic High School, which she is forced to attend, not for religious reasons, but because of the violence at nearby public schools.
Gerwig’s script is masterful in that it crafts Christine as just likeable enough for the audience to want to see the city through her eyes while simultaneously inviting some deserved scorn.
Christine can be quite cruel, particularly when dealing with her well-intentioned but overbearing mother. On other occasions, including a wickedly funny scene where a pro-life speaker addresses a class assembly, Christine’s rebellious nature is irresistibly charming. Even Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith) can’t help but be amused at Christine’s shenanigans from time to time.
Throughout the film, which covers the entire 2002-03 school year, we meet characters who influence Christine’s feelings about Sacramento. The most memorable of her friends by far is Danny (Lucas Hedges), who acts alongside Christine in the school play. Hedges, who was the best thing about 2016’s Manchester by the Sea, is at home here, this time not out-acting nearly everyone but instead enjoying the company of some of the hardest working performers of both stage and screen.
And then there is Laurie Metcalf. As I write this review, she is the front runner (with Allison Janney of I, Tonya hot on her heels) for this year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar. That and the other bookshelf worth of awards she is likely to take home are entirely merited. Though Metcalf is best known by the masses for her roles in sitcoms like Roseanne and The Big Bang Theory, she is a considerable dramatic talent who began her career with Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Though flourishes of the quirky, comedic side embodied by characters like Jackie Harris and Mary Cooper appear here, what’s most stunning about Metcalf’s performance is how her silence is louder than the voice of every other character on screen.
While the acting is winning all around, the script occasionally goes wrong. A subplot involving Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson) at one point seems positioned to further complicate the relationship between Christine and Marion, but is then abruptly dropped. The film also makes the mistake of leaving Sacramento during it’s final 10 minutes in a rushed attempt at completing a character arc. It doesn’t quite work. It also isn’t entirely necessary. We know what lesson Christine is going to learn on her journey. There is a line, spoken by Larry to Marion in an airport, that would have been the perfect place for credits to roll. But these are minor complaints about a film I cannot wait to see again, and which certainly ranks among the year’s best.