Just when we thought the stale "coming-of-age" film was on a precipitous slide, along comes the most unlikely of lifelines. Greta Gerwig, often dubbed the queen of low-budget cinema, has temporarily rescued the genre and shown she too has come of age, from mumblecore darling to quirky character actress to mature writer-director.
One of the best-received movies at the recent Telluride Film Festival, Lady Bird is a charming, poignant and occasionally very funny look at a high school senior slowly becoming a woman. It stars Saoirse Ronan, who also seems to reach adulthood in this film after a spectacular string of adolescent roles. One could argue that she was finally allowed to grow up in Brooklyn, but being a period piece, that film didn't exactly present her as a contemporary woman. Welcome to modern adulthood, Ms. Ronan!
Of course, because Lady Bird is a coming-of-age tale, Ronan's eponymous character doesn't begin the film mature. It takes some painfully real (almost Elia Kazan-like) mother-daughter struggles, poor relationship selections, self-esteem issues, awkward sexual moments and difficult college choices to get her there. But thanks to Gerwig's smart sensibility, some refreshingly brisk pacing and Ronan's own likeability, her character grows before our eyes.
Lady Bird can, at its worst, feel a little ordinary, as if we've seen this all before in countless other tales about growing up. But at its best, it leaves most of those other films in the dust and becomes, if only for an instant, a female version of The Graduate. Instead of mimicking other classics or becoming a collection of coming-of-age stereotypes, it successfully addresses themes often overlooked or mishandled in similar films, such as the yearning to break free of your parents juxtaposed against the comfort of one's home. (The film is practically a love letter to Sacramento.)
One of the most important, yet subtle, sub-plots is the clash between Lady Bird's father and mother, played well by Tracy Letts (perhaps better known as the author of Killer Joe and August: Osage County) and Laurie Metcalf, who is likely to generate some supporting-actress Oscar buzz. But the film is packed with countless other supporting gems, from Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird's boyfriend to Odeya Rush as the "hot friend" to Beanie Feldstein as the uncool, ugly duckling, to Stephen Henderson as the high school drama teacher. (The latter's muddled underdevelopment is one of the film's few flaws.) Most memorable perhaps, as the Catholic school's principal, is 87-year-old Lois Smith, who cut her acting teeth with James Dean in 1955's East of Eden. (And the Kazan connection is complete.)
"I wish I could live through something," Lady Bird remarks to her mom at the beginning of the movie. As the next 90 minutes flicker by, she does live through something. It's called life, and it's a great thing to sit back and observe.