Everybody keeps saying Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig's directorial debut, and everybody keeps being wrong.
Actress Gerwig has made dozens of independent movies, many in the "mumblecore" tradition of coauthorship, in which actors contribute dialogue and other ideas — she has an official codirector credit with Joe Swanberg on Nights and Weekends. She has formal writing credits on Mistress America and Frances Ha, and informally has had long conversations with every cinematographer she's ever worked with.
So if you see Lady Bird on Friday, and you say this movie is way too good to be anybody's directorial debut, you'd be correct.
Even so, the polish and the confidence of the work come as a shock. As does Gerwig's method of making it. Her background is improvisation and fluid collaboration, but her teen girl coming-of-age movie is old Hollywood — the dialogue, banged out on a keyboard, is all Gerwig's, shot as she wrote it, nary a word changed.
And why would you want to?
Sharp, funny, humane, and uncommonly intelligent — let's start with the Grapes of Wrath reference in the first scene, set in the front seat of a car, where a mother (Laurie Metcalf) is driving her willful daughter (Saoirse Ronan), who calls herself Lady Bird, home to Sacramento from an abysmal tour of California colleges the girl doesn't want to attend.
She wants to go East, way East, where "writers live in the woods" where colleges are prestigious and exclusive and completely unaffordable.
This offends her mother on some deep level, and after a minute you realize why — it's no random thing that they're listening to books-on-tape Steinbeck. It's one of the movie's most important ideas — the young girl does not realize it, but she is reversing one of U.S. history's great migrations.
"For so many people in California, who can trace back to being Dust Bowl farmers, how your family got there is a huge part of who you are," said Sacremento native Gerwig, on whose teen years the movie is very loosely based. "So when this girl says, 'I want to leave,' it's in the context of all that her foremothers and forefathers sacrificed to get there. And that's funny, and it's also heartbreaking, and it's also so American — there is an economic thread here, it's about the class system, and the idea that we are still all trying to make a better life than the one we have."
Gerwig shows us in Lady Bird that on some level, the feuding mother and daughter share these aspirations. On Sundays, they go to open houses and wander through mansions, wondering what it would be like to live there.
Their own house is modest, paid for by a mother who works double shifts at a hospital, necessary now that the father (Tracy Letts) has lost his job. That's all background, though, to the up-tempo rat-a-tat profile of Lady Bird's whirlwind, hectic, mistake-prone senior year at Catholic school — besties, boyfriends, being overwhelmed by a Dave Matthews Band song.
"Something I wanted to create was this idea that time is tumbling forward faster than you can hold on to it. I think teens experience life that way. And also, at that stage, people cannot accept generosity at the moment it is given," she said.
Gerwig is talking about Lady Bird's patient mentor — a good-natured nun (Lois Smith) who looks past the student's missteps, determined to nurture her potential. The sister's faith is rewarded, as we see in a crucial scene — Lady Bird finds herself in a position to fink on a boy who's angered her, but makes a different choice (we'll word this carefully to avoid spoilers). The young lady is smart, but she has absorbed another lesson — that life should have a moral dimension as well.
"That's one of my favorite scenes. It's where the movie really turns, and you realize not just this certain kind of comedy, that there's an undertow, and that something deeper is going on," she said. "She's becoming a person. We see her for the first time as an individual making important decisions, and she's really seeing another person for the first time, which is part of that process. And I think what she does reflects the way people have invested in her."
Gerwig is not Catholic, but she has deep respect for the school she attended, and the sisters who helped run it, and who, to borrow her phrase, invested in her.
"It's just so easy to play [parochial school] as just a straitjacket on someone, a rules-based system that is entrenched and inflexible," she said. "But my experience was that the [nuns] are quite groovy — accepting and funny and very much individuals."
If the scenes that open the movie and help it to pivot are cleverly done, the quietly radical ending is even better.
At this point in Lady Bird, the title character has managed to tidy up most of the messes she's made, except for the biggest and most important. The ineffable impasse between mother and daughter remains — the mutual love is obviously, passionately there, but it always manifests as mother pushing daughter, daughter pushing back.
How to demonstrate that these women love each other, to prove it to the audience, without a traditional speech or an embrace?
Suffice it to say that Gerwig finds a way, even if all she has to work with is runny mascara and a phone message (not to mention Ronan, sure to be nominated for an Oscar, as is Gerwig, as is Metcalf).
"That's the ending that came to me, and even though there were questions about it, I really stuck to my guns," said Gerwig, who maintained firm control of the movie up to and through the final half second.
Two thousand miles separate mother and daughter.
Lady Bird is on her own.
"She inhales, and we cut to black in the middle of a breath, because I felt that when she breathes out, we're in a different story."