Lady Bird ***

It’s good, but eager film goers should temper the hype for this indie darling.  

Is it worth $10? Yes 

From capturing the specific comes universal appeal. It's a lesson the coming-of-age stories that linger in your memory apply to vivid effect, and “Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig's solo feature directing debut, is a good coming-of-age story. Which makes it even more confounding how long I spent struggling to become immersed in its singular world.

The year is 2002, and Christine McPherson (“Brooklyn's” Saoirse Ronan), a rebellious 17-year-old, has decided to change her name to Lady Bird; she is no longer to be referred to by her Christian name. Emphasis on Christian: As the movie opens, her mom Marion (a sterling Laurie Metcalf), a hardworking, no-nonsense nurse, is driving her daughter back to Sacramento so the teen can attend her senior year of high school at a Catholic school her parents can barely afford.

There's an arch and mannered quality about this initial bickering between Marion and Christine. No, not Christine. Lady Bird. (It plays like Hal Hartley without the ironic distance.) The scene ends with a pouty teen purposely tumbling out of a moving car because she can No. Longer. Handle. The. Nagging.

My heart sank, and I braced for more overpraised preciousness. But give props to Gerwig for nailing this insular community. As a graduate of a Catholic high school myself, I can attest to the accuracy of the details: The teachers' soft-spoken yet stern passive aggressiveness, the status flaunting by the wealthier students, the disparity between the pupils' rejection of Christian principles and their propensity to be reined in by the very guilt-driven culture they resent. I winced in recognition. All of it rings true. Well, almost all of it. No Catholic school would put on a production of Stephen Sondheim's “Merrily We Roll Along,” but the charismatic young cast makes this particular suspension of disbelief possible.

And yet there's an off-putting affectation about Gerwig's initially clumsy mix of broad humor and pathos. There's a fine line between depicting gawky, awkward behavior and allowing your film to be just as awkward and gawky, but that's “Lady Bird” for you: a healthy dose of tough love in an often times erratic search for a consistent tone.

Over the course of an eventful year, the McPhersons' home becomes a battlefield, pitting Marion, a strong-willed matriarch with a doctorate in giving reality checks, and Lady Bird, who is not above turning her back on her shy, heavy-set and secretly gifted best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) in order to curry the “in” crowd's favor. What becomes an increasingly sore point between mother and daughter is Lady Bird's desire to go to college far away from California, a quest that Larry, her recently unemployed dad (a nicely understated Tracy Letts), is helping her with behind Marion's back.

But Lady Bird is also full of raging hormones, as well as a desire to be loved. Cue the cute, soft-spoken and very Irish Catholic Danny O'Neill (“Manchester by the Sea's” Lucas Hedges), who walks into her life and sweeps her off her feet. Their courtship yields some of “Lady Bird's” most endearing moments, as well as by far its most surprising scene. Gerwig refuses to look down on the lovebirds' naivété, and she elicits an affecting, deeply felt performance from Hedges, whose character even gets to perform Shakespeare with a poise that would give theater veterans envy.

But there's another lad that catches Lady Bird's eye: Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet), a rocker with long, wavy obsidian locks and outspoken political views. He's irresistibly cool, the bad boy opposite to Danny's angelic disposition. To her credit, Gerwig refrains from depicting Lady Bird's romantic feelings as an ingredient in a typical love triangle. The way it plays out is by turns touching, blistering and bittersweet.

Despite the brusque tonal shifts, mostly relegated to the film's first half, Gerwig, ably assisted by editor Nick Huoy, is able to juggle the myriad characters and storylines to bring the movie in at an episodic yet brisk 94 minutes. What keeps it from becoming, from where I'm sitting, the gem that others are fawning over, is the filmmaker's resolution to insert laughs that should have unfolded more effortlessly from the material. This is one dramedy that's at its best when it's quietly breaking your heart.

And Gerwig brings it home with an emotional climax involving Lady Bird, Marion and an unsentimental farewell that places the film's weight on Metcalf's shoulders. She knocks it out of the park, and elevates a film that's at once a love letter to Sacramento and a valentine to the noncorformist in all of us.

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