Opening this weekend at the Martha’s Vineyard Film Center is the charming coming-of-age comedy “Lady Bird.” This Lady Bird is not to be confused with Lyndon Johnson’s wife, or that sweet little red insect.
Played by the remarkable Saoirse Ronan, Christine McPherson is a rebellious teenager with dyed red hair who has renamed herself Lady Bird. The film marks Greta Gerwig’s debut as a director. Gerwig was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in “Francis Ha,” which she co-wrote with her partner Noah Baumbach.
“Lady Bird” opens with the 17-year-old and her mother Francis (a spot-on Laurie Metcalf) tearing up in the car over the audiotaped end to “Grapes of Wrath.” Many other scenes find them in the family car, indicative of Lady Bird’s passage toward the end of her years as a teenager. This time she and her mother are on a college tour. After they start squabbling for the first of many times, the frustrated Lady Bird throws herself out of the car. Most of the rest of the movie finds her with a pink cast on her arm, one of the many details Gerwig pays attention to.
Lady Bird is eager to ditch her hometown of Sacramento, California’s capital, and Gerwig’s hometown. She wants to go to college in New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, something her mother utterly opposes. Lady Bird enlists her father’s help in applying at a number of East Coast schools, including N.Y.U.
When it isn’t wandering around a 2003 Sacramento, the movie takes place in the Catholic girls’ school a uniformed Lady Bird attends. She isn’t exactly a star student, and not above getting suspended for nasty if honest comments in assembly. But she also finds herself comfortable among the nuns, and her best pal Jules (Beanie Feldstein). Gerwig doesn’t stereotype the nuns or Catholicism in general, and the school principal (Lois Smith) appreciates many of Lady Bird’s quirks.
A thread that runs throughout the film is an attention to class. The McPhersons are struggling to stay in the middle class, with Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) losing his job and her mother working double shifts as a nurse in a psychiatric ward.
Lady Bird is acutely aware of living on the wrong side of the tracks. In fact, one of her and her mother’s favorite Sunday activities is to go to open houses for sale on the right side of the tracks. Another interesting sign of the awareness of class are the family’s adopted Latino son Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his live-in girlfriend (Marielle Scott).
Teenage coming of age includes an initiation into sex, and there’s no exception for Lady Bird. Her first crush is Danny (Lucas Hedges, so remarkable in “Manchester by the Sea”). Band member Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) follows, and both liaisons turn out in unexpected ways.
“Lady Bird” belongs to a much-filmed genre, but it creates an especially realistic world. Down to its minor characters, the cast performs with a skill that makes this a film not to be missed.
Information and tickets for this and other films at the Film Center and the Capawock Theater are available at mvfilmsociety.com.