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'Lady Bird' takes a frank look at money and freedom

Greta Gerwig directs.

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SEE YOU AT THE CROSSROADS: Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf star in Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird."
  • SEE YOU AT THE CROSSROADS: Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf star in Greta Gerwig's "Lady Bird."

The early aughts were a fraught time, not least if you were also trying to lose your virginity, get into college and figure out how to get along with your parents. When Christine McPherson scans the walls of her Catholic high school in Sacramento during the pledge and sees a "9/11 never forget" sign on the bulletin board, you remember what it was to be careening through recession and terror threats and the drumbeat of war. And even for a high school senior like Christine (the thoroughly charming Saoirse Ronan), who insists everyone call her Lady Bird, there's no real escape. Not even when you're in a claustrophobic house with your stretched-thin parents, trying not to fight about money or freedom — when, in fact, the two seem inseparable — at every turn.

In "Lady Bird," the title character's coming-of-age feels like an honest reckoning with the myriad banal indignities that come with being 18ish and on the cusp of nobody-knows-what. Lady Bird hopes to shoot for some sort of East Coast liberal arts college on grades that make her guidance counselor literally laugh in her face; her breadwinner mother (Laurie Metcalf, in possibly her strongest-ever film performance) is hoping Lady Bird stays closer to home, and continually discourages her from aiming elsewhere, ostensibly because of cost and practicality. It stokes a rivalry that Lady Bird turns to her gentle, unemployed father (Tracy Letts) to circumvent. His filling out financial aid forms on the sly becomes an act of quiet subterfuge, and a needed vote of confidence.

But it's not all so heavy. If anything, "Lady Bird" faithfully builds out the sort of high school universe in which absolutely nothing feels proportional, and even seemingly minor characters have their own internal physics. Directing her own screenplay in her first major feature, Greta Gerwig embroiders finely in every line, every exchange. You can feel the power dynamic in play when Lady Bird calls out her best friend (the vulnerable Beanie Feldstein) for writing her shortened name, Julie, into the same affected quotations that Lady Bird uses. You have flashbacks to your own none-of-this-shit-makes-any-sense high school years when Lady Bird and her thespian boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), in full-themed Western wear, slide in close and slow dance to the dulcet tones of Bone Thugs 'n' Harmony's "Crossroads" under the squinty watch of chaperone nuns.

Catholic school, in fact, is the battlefield on which the rest of these dramas play out. Lady Bird's there on scholarship, a fact that keeps her mother on knife's edge when the daughter runs afoul of the rules. Others there worry little for money; on a visit to her boyfriend's grandma's stately home, Lady Bird chuckles at an old Ronald Reagan poster that he assures her is, in fact, hung in earnest. Already people are hailing "Lady Bird" as one of the most frank treatments of poverty in recent American movies, but if you're watching it in Arkansas, you're likely not to see the McPhersons' lot as poverty, per se. Lower middle class, maybe. Working class, sure. They're not under threat of eviction or of missing a meal. What they do feel, acutely, is the constant hard shove of low status, of American downward mobility.

Discussing it in serious tones shorts "Lady Bird" as a ticklish comedy; leaning into the laughs overlooks its strength as a serious drama. The one complaint: Gerwig has to reach in the final act for an emotional climax befitting all that came before, and she crams too much into the mother-daughter relationship, like an overloaded dryer doomed to return your towels a bit damp. Give it that space, though. Endings are never pat. The goal of high school is to escape, and then to start really figuring things out.

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