‘Lady Bird’ per­fectly shows a slice of teen life

The Mercury News Weekend - - A+E - By Lind­sey Bahr As­so­ci­ated Press

The teenager nick­named Lady Bird is ob­sessed with her place in the world, in her Catholic high school, in her school play, in her own fam­ily and in her unglam­orous home­town of Sacra­mento (“theMid­west of Cal­i­for­nia”) and the even less glam­orous neigh­bor­hood where she lives.

She craves so­phis­ti­ca­tion in a way that she can’t quite put into words or ac­tions, beyond a vague de­sire to go to an East Coast col­lege, but she’s cer­tain that what­ever she has in her mid­dle- class ex­is­tence in 2002 isn’t so­phis­ti­cated.

Part An­gela Chase, Lind­say Weir, Jo March and Anne Shirley, she is self­ish and self- cen­tered in that very par­tic­u­lar way that teenage girls can be, and she can’t yet com­pre­hend that this is a phase that might pass. And she is one of the­more achingly re­al­is­tic teenage char­ac­ters we’ve had the plea­sure of meet­ing in a movie.

Played by Ir­ish-Amer­i­can ac­tress Saoirse Ro­nan (“Brook­lyn,” “Atone­ment”), Lady Bird and the film bear­ing her name are the semi-au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal cre­ations of ac­tress and writer Greta Ger­wig in her solo di­rect­ing de­but.

“Lady Bird” de­picts one year in the life of its ti­tle char­ac­ter (whose real name is Chris­tine McPher­son), fromthe start of her se­nior year of high school to fresh­man year of col­lege and all of its beau­ti­ful ba­nal­i­ties — sex, prom,

money, grades, boys, nuns and that gnaw­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion that has plagued ev­ery 17-year-old who’d rather die than ad­mit that things might be OK.

The film be­gins with a quote from Joan Did­ion: “Any­body who talks about Cal­i­for­nia he­do­nism has never spent a Christ­mas in Sacra­mento.”

It’s the kind of quote Lady Bird would love to think she’s the only one who un­der­stands. But the truth is, she likely has not yet dis­cov­ered that pa­tron saint of Cal­i­for­nia girls.

She hasn’t dis­cov­ered a lot of things: Clove cig­a­rettes, Jim Mor­ri­son, what “the deuce” is, how to drink liquor or that her school has an an­nual­mu­si­cal. And she doesn’t yet knowhow to look out for her­self and oth­ers, whether it’s her mother Mar­ion (Lau­rie Met­calf), a nurse, or her best friend Julie (Beanie Feld­stein).

All she can see is what she doesn’t have, so she care­lessly skips over the tiny tri­umphs of her friend, and is blind to the fact that her mom might ac­tu­ally have her best in­ter­ests in mind, or that her fa­ther Larry ( Tracy Letts) might be strug­gling, fi­nan­cially and men­tally.

It’s these tiny, painfully hon­est de­tails that make up Ger­wig’s rich and lov­ingly com­posed film, which bursts with wit, hu­man­ity, joy and truth.

Ro­nan adds an­other su­perb per­for­mance to her al­ready stun­ning ré­sumé play­ing this some­times un­lik­able yet em­pa­thetic char­ac­ter, who will make you cry, laugh and cringe. But it’s the won­der­fully drawn sup­port­ing char­ac­ters who truly bring this world to life and make this film such an un­de­ni­able plea­sure.

Met­calf is at the top of her game as Mar­ion, and there are too many de­light­ful side char­ac­ters to do jus­tice to here: Lu­cas Hedges and Ti­mothée Cha­la­met as two very dif­fer­ent kinds of high school boyfriends; Lois Smith as a wise and funny nun; JakeMcDor­man as an im­pos­si­bly charm­ing teacher; and Stephen McKin­ley Hen­der­son as a melo­dra­matic drama coach are among the stand­outs.

But Feld­stein’s per­for­mance as Julie ranks as its own kind of sleeper tri­umph. She makes us sit up and take no­tice of an ex­cel­lent ac­tress who, un­til this point, ba­si­cally has been used as only a punch­line (see “Neigh­bors 2: Soror­ity Ris­ing”).

“Lady Bird” feels like a com­pan­ion piece to “Mis­tress Amer­ica” and “Frances Ha,” both of which Ger­wig co-wrote with Noah Baum­bach and­which he di­rected. But left to her own de­vices, Ger­wig has ar­rived— so­lid­i­fy­ing her place as one of the most in­vig­o­rat­ing, ob­ser­vant and authen­tic voices in movies now, with a direc­tor’s acu­men to match.

We should be es­pe­cially grate­ful when some­thing as lovely as “Lady Bird” comes along.

MERIE WAL­LACE — A24­FILMS VIA AP

Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ro­nan, right, with a boyfriend, played by Lu­cas Hedges, in 2002Sacra­mento.

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