Lady Bird Johnson is special in Austin and beyond. But a new movie, writer/director Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird,” will capture our hearts, too, though it has nothing to do with the former first lady. It’s a humane, tender look at mother/daughter relationships; yet, it’s much more than that. It’s lovely.
Saoirse Ronan, a two-time Oscar nominee for “Brooklyn” and “Atonement,” is bound to get another nomination as Christine McPherson, who’s rebelling against her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf) — and even her given name, choosing to refer to herself as Lady Bird.
Lady Bird has pretensions. She feels that she is destined for an artistic life on the East Coast, so that’s where she wants to go to college, although it will put her parents in a pinch. Her mother is a nurse, while her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), has recently been laid off.
She also longs for a romance, not that she seems likely to maintain a relationship. First she falls for a fellow theater student (Lucas Hedges), then moves on to the supposedly intellectual semi-nihilist Kyle (Timothee Chalamet). All the while, she’s moving away from her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), and she desperately wants to leave what she considers to be a drab life in unexciting Sacramento, California.
In short, she’s ready for something big in her life, in part because she’s a senior in high school, and she knows that big changes are coming.
Anyone who has lived through high school and anticipated a new life in college will appreciate Lady Bird’s angst. But the strained relationship between mother and daughter is the heart of the story. And without such strong actors as Ronan and Metcalf, this minor miracle of a movie probably would not have occurred.
Both characters are so flawed but lovable. And both will face aching realizations about their love before the movie is over. To say more will spoil things. Let’s just say there’s not a false note here.
Gerwig, in her directorial debut, shows a surprising mastery of the form, and it’s clear that she was paying close attention during her years acting in such fine independent movies as “Frances Ha” and “20th Century Women.”
It’s tempting to think the movie is autobiographical: Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, went to a Catholic school like Lady Bird and was a theater nerd and then went to college on the East Coast. But while the sentiments that are expressed in “Lady Bird” reflect Gerwig’s world view, she says the specific instances in “Lady Bird” did not happen to her.
What is clear, however, is that everything gelled on the movie set — from the supporting actors to the crew. Letts makes a great and understanding father who helps guide Lady Bird back to her heart. Hedges and Chalamet are perfect as Lady Bird’s wildly different boyfriends. And even small roles — like that of Lois Smith as the wise nun Sister Sarah Joan — are exquisite.
Theater nerds will rejoice. Mothers and daughters will wince with pain and laughter. Fathers and brothers will recognize the family tensions. And anyone who has dreamed of a life of urbanity and adventure will fall in love with Lady Bird. This is a small, humorous movie in some ways, but it has a huge heart. What a nice experience.
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges
Rating: R for language, brief nudity, sexuality, teen partying
Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes
Theaters: Alamo South, Arbor, Violet Crown