In the most general possible terms, the key in making a successful movie has far less to do with an originality of subject or concept than it does a specificity of voice.
Greta Gerwig, the accomplished actress and writer, crafts a suburban coming-of-age story in “Lady Bird,” her directorial debut, that doesn’t necessarily proceed in different or unexpected directions when compared to the reams of predecessors to have mined the same territory.
The semi-autobiographical movie plays exceptionally well, however, precisely because it has been made with such a distinctive vision. Gerwig pays close and loving attention to the sort of particular details that allow the story of Sacramento high schooler Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) over the course of her senior year in 2002-03 to be entirely recognizable to anyone who was young once, while it also stands apart as its own idiosyncratic thing.
Gerwig is so accomplished that she transforms Dave Matthews Band’s mediocre “Crash Into Me” into a song of great consequence, an emotional linchpin for Lady Bird and her best friend Julie Steffans (Beanie Feldstein) as they struggle with the difficult feelings of this last year of childhood, a time of sad goodbyes and the promise of new beginnings.
Ronan — one of the best actors around, period — is effortlessly natural in the ways she disappears into this character, capturing an authentic combination of confidence and awkwardness, forthrightness and insecurity. Her scenes with Laurie Metcalf as her stern, distant mother Marion underline everything and are simply unlike most other portraits of parent-child dysfunction simply because both characters are good, decent people, with the sort of flaws we all have in one form or another.
The movie derives the crux of its drama from the portrayal of a daughter and her mother trying to reconcile their complex relationship before the onset of adulthood makes such efforts infinitely more difficult.
Gerwig doesn’t force anything, or rely on easy seriocomic conceits. Her commitment to the everyday, to a vision of this segment of life in the city Lady Bird describes as the “Midwest of California,” is steadfast. And it allows this movie about growing up and the change in perspectives that comes with it, to evoke something essential about the experience.