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'Lady Bird' Soars With An Intimate Portrait Of Mother-Daughter Angst

Nov 3, 2017
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DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Greta Gerwig is best known as an actress in such films as "Frances Ha" and "Mistress America." Now she's written and directed a semi-autobiographical comedy called "Lady Bird" set in California in the early 2000s. Saoirse Ronan plays the 17-year-old title character who's in a love-hate relationship with her mother played by Laurie Metcalf. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: The title character in "Lady Bird" is a Sacramento high school senior who jettisons her real name, Christine McPherson, in favor of one that captures her fluttery exuberance and maybe suggests she'd like to fly away to the east - New York City or Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers, she says in voiceover, live in the woods. I love that romantic invocation of J.D. Salinger.

I don't know if writer-director Greta Gerwig kept a diary when she was 17, but the words sound like they're coming from a brilliant, naive teenager and not a somewhat patronizing older writer looking back. It helps that Gerwig's alter ego is played by the Irish-born Saoirse Ronan, who makes every line seem as if it's straight from her head. Ronan's accent is American, but her rhythm is Irish. She drives her lines home. Even when "Lady Bird" is theatrical, the artifice is emotionally pure. It's how this girl would style herself.

Lady Bird feels she needs that new name because of an ongoing crisis of identity exacerbated by her mother, Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf. Marion is coming apart under the strain of working more hours as a nurse after her husband, played by Tracy Letts, loses his job. She wants Lady Bird to go to a nearby state college, not a private one partly because it's cheaper and partly, it's suggested, because she's jealous of a daughter who can fly away when Marion can't.

Their battles seem to arise out of nowhere. In the movie's first scene, mother and daughter weep together in the car over an audio book of "The Grapes Of Wrath." And, suddenly, Marion turns her anxiety and self-doubt on to Lady Bird, who actually throws herself out of the moving car. Later, they go shopping in a thrift store for a dress she'll wear to her wealthy boyfriend's house for Thanksgiving.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "LADY BIRD")

LAURIE METCALF: (As Marion) Did Danny say whether his grandmother has a formal Thanksgiving?

SAOIRSE RONAN: (As Lady Bird) I don't know. There are a lot of kids, but she lives in the Fab 40s.

METCALF: (As Marion) Oh, well, your dad and I went to a dinner party once in that neighborhood - the CEO of ISC. That was pretty formal. You're not going to a funeral.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Well, I don't know. What says rich people Thanksgiving?

METCALF: (As Marion) I just think it's such a shame that you're spending your last Thanksgiving with a family you've never met instead of us, but I guess you want it that way. Are you tired?

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) No.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Hey, Marion.

METCALF: (As Marion) Hey, Joyce. Hey, how's the baby?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) Crawling.

METCALF: (As Marion) I want to see a picture at checkout.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTRESS: (As character) OK. OK.

METCALF: (As Marion) So if you're tired, we can sit down.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) I'm not tired.

METCALF: (As Marion) Oh, OK. I just couldn't tell because you were dragging your feet. Well, I just couldn't tell.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) Why didn't you just say pick up your feet?

METCALF: (As Marion) I didn't know if you were tired.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) You were being passive-aggressive.

METCALF: (As Marion) No, I wasn't.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) You are so infuriating.

METCALF: (As Marion) Please stop yelling.

RONAN: (As Lady Bird) I'm not yelling. Oh, it's perfect.

METCALF: (As Marion) Do you love it?

EDELSTEIN: You can hear in that scene the mother-daughter intimacy as well as the way in which Marion gets so under Lady Bird's skin that the teen's anger seems out of proportion. As an actress, Gerwig's dithery mannerisms can make her seem too strenuously adorable. But as a writer and director, the balance between likability and toughness is perfect. Gerwig has the ability to skip along the surface of her alter ego's life and suddenly stop and go deep quickly without fuss. Then she skips forward again, evoking the tempo of a life lived whimsically but over an emotional abyss.

The supporting characters come on like caricatures. But each has a moment when you understand where their silly opinions or affectations come from and find yourself liking them. There's that rich boy played by Lucas Hedges of "Manchester By The Sea" who's struggling with his own identity and a too-cool malcontent played by Timothee Chalamet, who's remarkable in the gay love story coming out later this month "Call Me By Your Name." There's a scene in which a football coach played by Bob Stephenson takes over a production of "The Tempest" and blocks it out on the blackboard, with some characters going one way information and others the opposite way, a one-idea gag that gets bigger and funnier as it goes along.

Gerwig gives us just enough Laurie Metcalf to keep us wanting more. Even at the mother's most scalding, you sense the confusion of a woman whose resentment has spun away from her to the point where halting it could seem even more painful than giving it free reign. "Lady Bird" is light in tone but packed with insight. The movie soars.

DAVIES: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. On Monday's show, Michael Lewis, author of "Moneyball," talks about the uneasy transition in federal agencies such as the Energy Department when Trump administration appointees arrived. Lewis says many career civil servants found Trump officials unprepared and uninterested in the work of the departments. He writes about the potential consequences in a series for Vanity Fair. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEN PEPLOWSKI'S "MY BUDDY")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEN PEPLOWSKI'S "MY BUDDY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.