Every time I watch Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha (at this point, the number has to have climbed into double digits), I become more convinced that it’s one of the great comedies of the 21st century, not to mention one of the great films, period, about postgraduate life. Suddenly, I’m now also convinced that calling it “Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha,” while technically accurate, is insufficient. It’s always been clear that Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote and starred in the film, played an enormous role in shaping its title character, to say nothing of how she may have mitigated some of the nastiness that had started to weigh down Baumbach’s work in the years prior. But to really understand just how much Frances Ha is hers as much as it is his, you have to see Gerwig’s wonderful, uproarious new coming-of-age film, Lady Bird (Grade: A). The warm affection for foibles, the lightning-quick volleys of verbiage, the screwball forward plunge of the montage: So much of what made Frances Ha special is right here, too. And yet Lady Bird is its own movie, as generous as it is perceptive about the strange business of growing up and into yourself.
Gerwig knows how to make an entrance. Her early descent down the Times Square stairs in Mistress America, the second film she co-wrote with Baumbach, felt like more than just the perfect introduction to her self-mythologizing character—it was also the coronation of indie royalty, like the star taking her place as the quick-witted queen of millennial New York neurosis. The first film Gerwig has solitarily written and directed (this is not, as many have claimed, her inaugural turn behind the camera; she shares a directorial credit with Joe Swanberg on 2008's Nights And Weekends), Lady Bird arranges an even better entrance for its own irresistible heroine: Squabbling with her combative, witheringly disapproving mother (Laurie Metcalf, granted her best role in ages) while driving around to look at colleges, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) decides she’s had just about enough conversation, opens her passenger-side car door, and rolls out. She’ll wear a cast for most of the movie. It’s a symbol of her teenage rebellion, just like the eponymous nickname she invents, adopts, and insists everyone use.
Gerwig doesn’t reinvent the wheel. (Plenty have drawn comparisons to The Edge Of Seventeen, though that movie would kill for this one’s wit.) Part of Lady Bird’s immense charm is that the stakes aren’t really any higher than they would be for any normal teenager. Set over an eventful but not extraordinary senior year of high school in Sacramento (“the Midwest of California,” as one character calls it), Lady Bird follows Lady Bird through rites of passage: getting into and then out of the drama club; tiptoeing into first romance; agonizing about college; growing apart from her best friend (Beanie Feldstein); fighting with her mother; and trying to hide her family’s limited income. But Gerwig tackles this middle-class experience—influenced, though not directly inspired, by her own Sacramento upbringing—through fluid, intoxicating montage; her background in dance seems to inform her nimble editing rhythms. And Gerwig’s dialogue hits that rare, special sweet spot between authenticity and zing—an ideal middle ground, in other words, between the way people really talk and the gut-busting way we only wished they did.
Almost no one in Lady Bird is a caricature and almost everyone is played by a terrific actor, from Tracy Letts to Lois Smith to Manchester By The Sea’s scene-stealing Lucas Hedges. It’s a remarkable ensemble. The movie belongs, though, to its perennially expressive star. Brooklyn seemed to usher Ronan fully into adulthood, but here she gracefully pinwheels backward into youth, shifting constantly from self-conscious to stubborn to radiantly sincere—a whole teenage spectrum of traits, coexisting in one fully realized character, balanced precariously on the ledge between girlhood and womanhood. Lady Bird, like Lady Bird, contains multitudes: It’s an atomized adolescent portrait, a wise study of the sometimes prickly relationship between mothers and daughters, and—ultimately, movingly—a film about how a place’s magic sometimes only becomes evident in hindsight, burning brightly in the rearview mirror. Lady Bird’s magic, on the other hand, reveals itself quickly. It’s one to cherish.