"I wish I could live through something," the title character laments to her mother in the opening scene of writer/director Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird. Played with comical intensity by Saoirse Ronan, 17-year-old Lady Bird -- nee Christine -- is too young to realize that she is inescapably living through something, both in her own world and the wider one beyond Sacramento, the hometown from which she's eagerly planning her getaway. A heartfelt coming-of-age story that perfectly captures the bittersweet transition from adolescence to dawning adulthood, Gerwig's directorial debut is a joy from start to finish, a warm, generous snapshot of teenage vulnerability and exuberance.
Gerwig has called Lady Bird a love letter to Sacramento, where she grew up, and she bathes the city in a golden, pre-dusk light — a testament to the mixed feelings many of us have for the places that made us. Although Gerwig herself doesn't appear, her giddy energy infuses both the film and character. Gerwig's first act is a collection of funny, touching scenes of Catholic school life. She and her best friend, Julie (an excellent Beanie Feldstein) snack on communion wafers while giggling about masturbation.
The movie is also keenly attuned to the subtleties of American class; when Christine's mother, Marion, played by the wonderful Laurie Metcalf, takes her shopping, they go to the thrift store. Lady Bird is in many ways Marion's story, too, offering an insightful portrait of an intimate yet contentious mother-daughter relationship. Gerwig nails the way weeks worth of argument and hostility can drift off like mist when, on a shopping excursion, mother and daughter both spot the right dress at the same time.