Lady Bird review: Greta Gerwig tackles coming-of-age genre with playful grace

Lady Bird review: Greta Gerwig tackles coming-of-age genre with playful grace

Lady Bird review: Greta Gerwig tackles coming-of-age genre with playful grace

Updated 7 February 2018, 12:50 AEDT

Lady Bird is not a film that speaks with daring originality, but it's handled with such playfulness, intelligence and feeling by director Greta Gerwig that it doesn't matter.

Greta Gerwig is one of the most recognisable and talented actresses of her generation, with a deceptively delicate screen presence offset by a striking Garbo-esque profile that has made her synonymous with fringe Hollywood and complex characters as forthright as they are flawed.

But she melts away from view in her directorial debut, a loosely autobiographical, achingly personal tale of a teenage girl who calls herself Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) in the emotional rollercoaster of her final year at a Catholic high school.

The time is 2002 and the place is Gerwig's native Sacramento, a city the director has described as "non-showy". It also gets a dedication from writer and fellow Sacramentan Joan Didion, in the film's opening title card: "Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento."

This flash of sardonic humour is soon over though. Even pot-shots at religion seem off the cards, in favour of some affectionate portraits of teachers and school clergy, and Lady Bird's lower middle-class family life.

Her middle-aged parents in particular are carefully drawn, both quietly and good humouredly bearing the strain of either being put on the scrap heap too young — like her IT consultant dad (Tracy Letts) — or working double shifts at the hospital, like her nurse mother (Laurie Metcalf).

Lady Bird, of course, is not her real name. She's changed it, perhaps for the same reasons her adopted brother Miguel and his girlfriend — a pair of droll goths also living at home — apply piercings to their faces.

She's striking out at conformity and drabness, things she hopes to leave behind, if and when she gets in to a prestigious East Coast university the following year.

But of course, via Sam Levy's sepia pastel cinematography, the film reveals a portrait of a city, a school, and a home that Lady Bird will soon come to miss and even regret leaving.

Lady Bird is nominated for Best Picture, Best director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress at this year's Oscars, all of which are thoroughly deserved.

Gerwig's ability with actors is one of her most striking achievements, and she draws out incredible nuance from her own carefully woven script — full of tonal U-turns and emotional syncopations.

An early scene as mother and daughter drive across the country in the family car is one such moment that grabs your attention, when you realise they've transitioned from tears to anger in few seconds.

The mother-daughter relationship is the film's focal point, along with Lady Bird's waxing, waning dynamic with her bubbly, up-for-anything best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein).

But there are also inevitable romantic relationships.

The awkward but indelible experiences of first love usher in two very different boys — Danny, a sensitive, gangly youth with a love of musical theatre that sets off alarm bells (Lucas Hedges), and brooding rich kid Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), whose radical but callow posturing reminds you of a schoolyard Marcuse in a BMW.

Gerwig has tackled a popular genre — the coming-of-age movie — and moulded it thoughtfully, sensitively and emphatically to her own artistic sensibilities.

It's not a film that speaks with daring originality, but that's never the point when the genre conventions speak so clearly, and are handled with such playfulness, intelligence and feeling.