Specificity is what gives a film real power. Details, when paid well enough attention to, are what make an experience immersive. Attended to lazily, though, and you will be reminded that you are simply watching something on a two-dimensional screen.
Lady Bird, the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, shines because of its specificity. On its face, it is a straightforward and conventional coming-of-age tale, the kind we get every year many times over. Its authenticity is what makes it unusual and noteworthy.
Saoirse Ronan is the eponymous character. Lady Bird is a nickname, and one never fully explained. "It was a name given to me ... BY me," she proclaims with the kind of deadpan confidence anyone who's been a deeply insecure teenager ought to recognize. Much of the film's humor comes from this particular place - from Lady Bird's feeling that, on the cusp of adulthood, she ought to be certain about a lot of things that, in practice, she hasn't even remotely figured out. (Welcome to adulthood, Lady Bird.)
This is not new territory, but Gerwig doesn't try to draw her power from plumbing new depths. Instead, she finds it in an unusual setting - Sacramento, California - in a loving depiction of an all-girls Catholic high school, and, most of all, in the people in her life who are at once archetypal and still textured.
Lady Bird's relationship with her mother is the best, but far from only, example of this. Ronan and her on-screen mother, Laurie Metcalf, clash frequently, as you might expect of a teenager and parent. Yet it never becomes trite because the pair have the chemistry to believably lapse from shouting match to sharing a good cry and back, and because Gerwig, who also wrote the film, gave them the room to do so.
Lady Bird is filled with moments like this - with a cast of characters that all seem to be given real depth despite a brisk 93-minute runtime. Ronan is a fierce, defiant presence, but so, in their own way, are all of her counterparts, from her dad (Tracy Letts) to her best friend (the wonderful newcomer Beanie Feldstein) to her love interests (Lucas Hedges and then Timothee Chalamet).
Gerwig is a native of Sacramento, where she attended an all-girls Catholic high school. So, yes, this is a highly personal story, and no doubt that is where so much of the authenticity is derived.
But it would have been so much easier for her to tell a less honest version of this story. She could have put so much more of the focus on Lady Bird's self-discovery, turning her mother and best friend and love interests in to caricatures in the process. She could have made her proxy one of those too-cool-for-a-small-town types - a Joy Division fan or something, instead of an unabashed Dave Matthews Band girl. (I still have a soft spot for "Crash Into Me"; no one Lady Bird's age in 2002, when the film was set, was that discerning - I would know.) And that would have made the details of this film a little bit disingenuous and a whole lot less memorable.
So, that's why you're going to hear a lot about this film over the next few months. Time will tell if Gerwig can craft a less personal story in as compelling a fashion.
What's clear after her first directorial effort, though, is that she has great instincts. Without them, she wouldn't have been able to announce herself so remarkably.