Lady Bird opens on a road-tripping mother and daughter, retreating from a dismal college tour, crossing the flat central valley of California for home and Sacramento, listening to the final passages of The Grapes of Wrath.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig is winking at us, encoding a couple of ironies in this reference. Steinbeck's story followed migrants toward the supposed Eden of California, but the title character here is a high school teen (Saoirse Ronan) who grew up there and wants to leave the worst way, almost literally — she jumps out of the car during an argument with her mother (Laurie Metcalf).
And that's the other irony — Steinbeck's closing gesture of maternal warmth contrasts with the fraught mother-daughter relationship in this scene, one that intensifies as we go, adding shape to the story and leading to its memorable conclusion. The movie is a coming-of-age tale, but it's also a story of loving, warring mother and daughter at the point of separation, presented by Gerwig with great affection and skill, to hilarious, and moving effect.
What's behind the mother's tough love? She says she wants her daughter to be "the best version of herself." Daughter, though, spits out versions like a faulty copier, none of which the mother can stand. The young woman feels she has outgrown everything. Not just Sacramento — Catholic school, virginity, her hair color, her best friend, even the name her mother gave her.
She calls herself Lady Bird. When she runs for student council, she makes posters with a bird head on her body, or her head on a bird body.
Lady Bird has more nerve than tact (you've seen glimpses of this persona in Gerwig's Frances Ha and Mistress America), and as the director underlines the character's eccentricities, there are a few fearful moments when you think the movie will be a collection of affectations.
But the characters are too real, Gerwig's eye for the adolescent lives of young women too keen — notice the way Lady Bird edits (and at times diminishes) herself in order to appeal to boys.
She falls for the too-good-to-be-true lead (Lucas Hedges) in the school play, then a dime-store anarchist (Timothée Chalamet) who makes a great display of hating Dave Matthews and the prom, a posture Lady Bird bends to accommodate.
Lady Bird's real high school soul mate is her best friend (Beanie Feldstein), another relationship that is sorely tested. Lady Bird is prone to serious mistakes, the way teenagers are, but as events unfold we see that someone has instilled in her a fundamental decency — candidates include her quietly observant father (Tracy Letts), a mentoring Catholic School nun (Lois Smith), and, of course, mom.
Lady Bird is becoming the best version of herself. Yet the mother-daughter breach remains — their default setting is family feud, neither can change the ritualized trajectory of their arguments, and Lady Bird flies off without a hug.
And yet we know that she's taken her mother — and her family and her teachers and Sacramento — with her. How?
Gerwig ends her movie with a feat of structural daring — making us understand and feel a reconciliation between characters who are not on screen together.
No director would let a writer get away with that.
Unless the director were the writer, and as talented, innovative, and generous as Gerwig.