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film review

Saoirse Ronan, left, and Laurie Metcalf in a scene from Lady Bird.Merie Wallace

Back in early September, the fall film season looked to be in rough shape. Nearly everything coming out of the major film festivals – which typically dictates how you'll spend your spare autumnal weekends – arrived with a dent. Downsizing left Venice strong, but landed in Telluride and Toronto with expectations that echoed its title. The Shape of Water had some viewers feeling as cold as the blood that runs through its featured creature. Suburbicon was dead-on-arrival. Molly's Game tripped on a heartbreaking third-act plot branch. No one can make their mind up about Mother!, and that's probably for the best.

So when buzz trickled out of Telluride for Lady Bird, the (sorta) directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, I tried to remain skeptical. No doubt Gerwig has been on a remarkable roll, ostensibly since she creatively partnered with filmmaker Noah Baumbach but really since she leapt onto the screen with performances in Hannah Takes the Stairs, Baghead and Nights and Weekends (the latter of which she co-directed with Joe Swanberg, hence the "sorta"). Those ultra-low-budget films belonged to the "mumblecore" movement of late-aught American indie cinema, though it's a term Gerwig hates, and rightly so: It implies a somehow lesser-than status, a patronizing, "Oh look, you cool kids made a movie for nothing, how cute."

This "good for you, hipster cutie" reputation has been unfairly following Gerwig around her entire career, allowing critics to shift the credit for her essential contributions to the scripts of Frances Ha and Mistress America toward Baumbach. It's much easier, apparently, to label Gerwig a mere muse and Baumbach her art-house Henry Higgins, him sculpting elite-cinema brilliance from her scrappy li'l efforts.

Still, no matter how stellar Gerwig's work has been as both a writer and performer (why are we all not collectively obsessed with last year's 20th Century Women?), the Lady Bird campaign felt overblown. A coming-of-age story based on Gerwig's own teenage years in Sacramento? Sounds fine, even great, but surely not one of the best films of the year.

Check that. After settling into a TIFF screening two months ago – when the excitement for the film was so high that fest organizers booked an Imax screen to accomodate the critics and industry players – Lady Bird knocked me down, blew me away, destroyed and then built me right back up again. It is that rarest of pleasures in the movie world: a film worth the hype.

Lady Bird's bona fides are clear two minutes in. Gerwig opens on what seems like a seen-it-all-before scene: The teenage Christine, who prefers to go by Lady Bird, is driving with mother Marion as they scope out colleges. They've just finished listening to a book on tape while cruising down a dry stretch of Californian road, when an argument erupts. As mother and daughter respectively, Laurie Metcalf and Saoirse Ronan nail every expected beat. The words are heated. The glances are cold. And then, when you think Gerwig will cut to a scene of domestic complacency, Christine throws herself out of the moving car. Roll opening credits – and welcome to the smartest, sincerest, most acidically funny family drama in ages.

For 93 tight minutes, Gerwig lets her story – in all senses of the word, given the script's autobiographical nature – skip vignette-like across the course of Christine's final stint in high school. There are academic pressures, disappointing boyfriends (who happen to be played by current indie-cinema MVPs Lucas Hedges and Timothée Chalamet), a best-friend rift, mean girls, kind teachers, go-nowhere part-time jobs, college applications, drinking games, late-night pizza, concocted drama. The usual obstacles and detritus of a lower-middle-class suburban teenage life, handled with care and genuine compassion by a director who's lived it.

Looming above, or perhaps lurking below, everything is Christine's relationship with her mother. The two hate each other, they love each other, they want to escape from one another so badly but they can't truly bear the thought of separating. It's exhausting and heartbreaking, and never less than captivating. Part of this is due to Gerwig's sharp script and nimble direction – her scenes seem so perfectly cut and staged that it's almost supernatural – but mostly from the performances she wrings from Ronan and Metcalf. Instantly relatable, and wholly real, the pair deliver fearless turns that likely represent the peak of their powers. (Hopefully not, but it's hard to imagine another director giving them such generous material as Gerwig.) Tracy Letts goes toe-to-toe with the pair as Christine's kindhearted father, but this is a mother-daughter show, and one for the ages.

The fact that Lady Bird is Gerwig's (sorta) first time in the director's chair is beside the point. Yes, for a debut, it's astounding how much command she has over style, tone, performance, mood. But this film would be recognized as an all-time achievement whether it was someone's first, third or 31st film. There is no rookie-film handicap required in grading the excellence on display. There are no fireworks or twists or unnecessary frills here, nor should there be – this is simply perfect filmmaking from a voice that demands to be heard.

The fall movie season is saved. Thank you, Greta Gerwig.

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