Lady Bird ★★★★½

Three months before I saw Lady Bird I posted on Facebook: "Sometimes you hear Dave Matthews and you just have to think haters gonna hate because Dave Matthews is actually so fucking good." The post elicited an expected onslaught of mockery in response. But I expect that if I was Facebook friends with Greta Gerwig, she might have thrown that post a 'Like.' She gets it. The scene in Lady Bird where the title character (Saoirse Ronan) and her friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) cry while listening to "Crash into Me" could have been pulled from my own high school experience. A key moment in the film involves Lady Bird simply being able to admit that the maligned song is important to her. Gerwig's remarkable debut as a solo writer-director is full of such spot-on observations about growing up.

It's at once funnier, warmer, and less specific and more real than Boyhood, and honours the feelings of teenage agony that feel so real at a time when you think you know everything but you know nothing. Gerwig's sensitivities to the teenage experience are filled with empathy and amusement that comes from looking back on one's past self, of being both embarrassed of that person and grateful to that person for shaping who you became. Lady Bird's discontent with her situation screams of naivety, confusion, dumb idealism, and ungratefulness. But she'll grow out of it. We all do.

But it's a tough age. That last year of high school is defined by a fragile desperation of the need to make the "right" choices to determine the "right" future. For a lot of people (certainly, for me), it is also defined by a desire to flee, to leave behind one's roots for the illusory "something more." The desperation is especially palpable when your social position makes dreams feel out of reach. Everything at this stage feels more important than it is, but Gerwig respects that feeling as much as she (and we) know better in hindsight.

For Lady Bird, these anxieties are compounded by a tense relationship with her mother and the class anxieties that plague them both. Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) is exacting, dismissive, but clearly trying in her own way to have Lady Bird's best interests at heart. The fact that she's willing to respect her ridiculous chosen name is evidence enough on its own that Marion cares. But it's complicated. "You can't be warm and scary at the same time," Lady Bird says to her boyfriend, who describes Marion in both those terms. Can't you? We know Marion herself grew up with an abusive mother. Intergenerational relational cycles are real, and they influence us in enormous ways. Marion's repeated attempts to quash her daughter's dreams are, in their own way, a desire to protect her from the pain of failure and disappointment.

Gerwig upsets conventions of the teen comedy genre. She allows her characters to be deeply flawed, but makes none of them easy to hate. Moments you might expect in lesser films are teased and then dropped here, or played off which much less drama than they could be. There's no big finale here, just a small step towards understanding, perspective, and reconciliation that is actually a big step.

That might be Lady Bird's greatest strength (aside from Gerwig's and Ronan's unabashed confidence in telling this story). Life is rarely about epiphanies and grand gestures. Things are rarely what we expect, especially when we're eighteen. We learn through disappointment—"I was on top. Who the fuck is on top their first time?"—, through experiences that prove us wrong or misinformed, and through the humility of recognizing our own and others' frustrated expressions of love and need in ways even we don't always understand.