My favorite moment in the universally-loved "Lady Bird" comes during the auditions for the high school musical. UB's Stephen McKinley Henderson plays the priest/teacher holding the auditions for the Sondheim musical.
Eventually, it's time for "Lady Bird's" turn to perform. Lady Bird's real name is Christine but she is experiencing a late-adolescent moment where anything that might be vaguely ordinary is tainted with hopeless mediocrity. Her adaptation of the name "Lady Bird" is not because it was once the name of the wife of President Lyndon Johnson but because she thinks it connotes flight and freedom.
So, out of nowhere, our would-be freebird does her Sondheim audition. It is so shockingly good and vivid that Henderson is both startled by her talent and a little afraid of it. It's as if he has just caught a glimpse through the window of Godzilla in the parking lot munching on his Ford Focus. He gives the lead role, instead, to Lady Bird's more conventional and hard-working BFF played by Odeya Rush.
Lady Bird/Christine is a Sacramento teen played by Saoirse Ronan, one of the great young actresses around (see "Brooklyn"). Lady Bird's nurse mother is played by Laurie Metcalf, the virtuoso actress whose career on screen never comes close to equaling the fearlessness she's exhibited onstage. No matter. As the mother of an ambitious and often enervating teenager who is poised to devour the world, she is evenly divided between love, realism and support.
Lady Bird's father is played by Tracy Letts, a reliable actor portraying an infinitely compassionate man who is trying to find a job in a high tech world where he's neither young or high tech enough. He and his wife are the epitome of good people, the kind who take lost teen foundlings into their home to help them get a start. It's their birth daughter who is both a trial and a wonderment. They can't afford it but for college she wants to go back east, where the "culture" is -- New York, or Connecticut or, you know, "New Hampshire."
We need to be sweetly blunt here: You really don't want to miss "Lady Bird." You're going to have to trust every American movie critic on this one. OK, the coming of age story about a 2002 Catholic school girl does hit some familiar marks in the first hour -- a nun, separating horny, close-dancing teens at high school dances just enough to make room for "the holy spirit.")
But, in its second half, "Lady Bird" pulls ahead of most other coming-of-age comedies and presents you with a quirky lovability that announces in bold letters that all those who have been proclaiming Greta Gerwig one of the wonders of American indy movies have absolutely known what they're talking about.
This is her first movie as an unseen writer/director. The first time Ronan opens her mouth to talk, you can hear some of Gerwig's cadences as an actress delivering the lines. But that's unfair to Ronan, who is wonderful for her own highly individual brittleness. Gerwig obviously chose her for her closeness to the director's own acting style.
Gerwig's ascent from micro-budgeted "mumblecore" movies to writer/collaborator/actress with her life partner Noah Baumbach has been hosannaed every step of the way but I doubt whether ANYONE thought her maiden film as filmmaker would be nearly as glorious as this.
By the time "Lady Bird" is over, everyone will be guaranteed some adoration for Lady Bird, who has made all the romantic and social mistakes you expect a young girl to make while ravenous for distinction but has learned from them all on the way to a thoroughly unpredictable womanhood.
Lucas Hedges, of "Manchester by the Sea," plays Lady Bird's first boyfriend, a theater type who gives a hint of trouble with his anomalous teen boy contentment with just "cuddling" with his girlfriend.
Gerwig has been feisty in interviews about anyone reading too much autobiography into this movie. Obviously, it was inspired by her life. But this is a tight, beautifully observed and constructed world she is giving us--a world of family and school and life opening up.
It would be foolish to miss it. Or, for that matter, miss whatever she does next, now that we know how terrific a filmmaker she is.
★ ★ ★ ★ (out of 4)
Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lois Smith, Odeya Rush and Stephen McKinley Henderson star in Greta Gerwig's universally acclaimed tale of a Catholic school girl in Sacramento coming of age in 2002. 93 minutes. Rated R for language, sex, brief graphic sex and teen partying.