Two scenes show you the mettle of Lady Bird, display exactly what the film is made of. In the first of these, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) wakes on her birthday, to find her father bringing her a cupcake with a candle in it. Greta Gerwig's camera - grainy and companionable - pulls in, right up close to the central character, drawing morning heat from Lady Bird's just interrupted slumber, delighting in the texture of her undone hair, and dwelling with a measure of sweetness on her blotchy adolescent skin. Such a scene would pass without comment were it not for how unusual it is in a cinema industry where young women routinely wake up with a face full of slap, arching their sexy backs, etc etc. But Gerwig knows her character so well, is so kind and honest in the view she trains on her, and brings such sensitivity to bear on this hopelessly questing girl, that it feels of a piece with the film.
A second, fleeting moment that drew my attention: in New York, having finally evaded the cloistering Sacramento of her youth, Lady Bird crosses a sunlit street in Manhattan, filmed at a distance, slightly from above; nearby, another young woman, an extra who graces the movie for all of one second, runs past her with a folder of papers in her hands. It may sound preposterous to have alighted on this moment, but I don't believe I've seen an extra running before, when in my normal life I run to get to places all the time and see people hurrying all around me. In instructing this young actor to run, Gerwig not only shows what care she gives to the world she is drawing, and with what pains she evinces a tangible authenticity from her performers, but gives her film a welcome freshness, something jumpy and winsome; there is real pleasure to be drawn from looking at her movie.
Gerwig's subject is ostensibly hoary and boring: the American high-school movie; the coming-of-ager; the misfit who goes to prom. We've seen everything in it a hundred times, from its laughable sports teacher to the roll-ups-smoking cool kid, from the forbidding mom with a heart of gold to the moment the protagonist learns she's got into her university of choice. How, then, does Gerwig's film feel so different, so new and easy? In part it's that she's so confident in her voice, and that her plain, serviceable directing style marries with her script so well.
There's something still of the Baumbach influence in her screenplay, not least in the characters' quirks and the somewhat startling way they have of stating their intentions or their personality upfront. This trait is reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos' writing, in a way: it's disarming and fairly modern, and makes the characterisation teeter on the brink of caricature. Gerwig certainly deals in types, but she also finds a way, through her direction of actors, to steer her types into different, surprising territory - or to give them a singularity in their voice or mannerisms. And her personal experience, her eye as a still young woman, enable her work to feel free of the mockery and facility that has infected Baumbach's recent films (not least Mistress America, which Gerwig co-wrote). On the contrary, because Gerwig attempts so little with her filmmaking, the script is allowed to sing, and there is even something in the film that exalts her characters. Part of the trickery is that, afterwards, you can't really remember what was so enrapturing: was anything here stark or memorable, did it hit me in any way? No - but while it was happening I was acquainted with these people, I heard them and knew them.
Two things confirm this purity of purpose, this courtship of what is real & alive. The costumes in Gerwig's film are so perfectly devised, so beautifully true for each character. In a coming out scene where one character cries on the shoulders of another by the bins outside a cafe, almost the most touching thing was the disastrous length of his bootcut jeans, flopping over his shoes as he leans in for a hug. Lady Bird's long, flattening shift dresses perform the same job, as do her bell bottoms at the end of the film when she is becoming a woman in New York, which are on the very verge of coolness but, in the end, not at all there. These are the touches of someone who knows her character inside out, who remembers feelings and smells, who is able to share with us every aspect of a person's existence in a way that just fits, that is somehow heady in its veracity.
The other aspect of Gerwig's film, returned to again and again, in a way which marks it out, is money - the way Lady Bird and her family have none, and how it sets them apart. In another movie less at pains to convey that want, we might get a few lines from the central character about wanting to afford more things - but in Lady Bird, this need, the financial precarity, is a whole system, informing the very story of the film, giving impetus to the action, and manifesting in various, distinct narrative threads, from Lady Bird's parents' jobs to her choice of college via her relationships with other kids at school.
Money is in the language of the film, in the shabby setting of Lady Bird's house and the vulgar pretensions of the people whose company she aspires to, in her prom dress and her school grades, in asides from her mother about her own upbringing. Everywhere this asperity is felt, this fear of slipping through the cracks or not making it; everywhere this is seen, which peculiarly marks Lady Bird out, not just as an honest film, but as something richly conceived, which perceives the full socio-cultural compact of its microcosm, and which views its setting with a dry, critical eye rather than with hackneyed nostalgia.
All of this is played with fervour and delicacy by the cast - Gerwig's work as an actor must have helped her secure these sensitive portrayals - to an extent that overrides the film's handful of flaws, such as its tendency to overstate, especially in its final scene which takes an emotional misstep. It will be interesting to see Gerwig invent more stories, to see her carry her original voice over to other projects, and grow as a filmmaker so that - hopefully, and quite naturally - her lexicon expands beyond the beautiful, breathy intimacy on display in this tiny, inexpensive, well-meant, endearingly badly wrapped Christmas present of a film.