It’s been a banner year in cinemas for noted Northern California native Joan Didion — she’s had her own documentary, “The Center Will Not Hold,” multiple appearances of her book “The White Album” in “Ingrid Goes West,” and now her quote serves as the epigraph to Greta Gerwig’s “Lady Bird.”
That line is a good one: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” The quote speaks to a combination of aspiration and ennui, which our Sacramentan protagonist, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), has in abundance.
In her own words, California’s capital city is “the Midwest of California,” a serious allegation to level at proud Golden Staters. Lady Bird, a private high school senior, can’t wait to trot off to college in New York or a place “where writers live in the woods” while her formidable mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), wants something closer to home. The matriarch has already kept Lady Bird’s brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his partner Diana (Laura Marano) on the ranch and wants to do the same with her younger offspring.
For the length of the film, the charming and infuriating Lady Bird is caught between different sets of people, from her parents to her girlfriends to her boyfriends.
Marion’s domineering threatens to overwhelm not only her daughter but also her gentle, unemployed husband, Larry (Tracy Letts), a foundering middle-aged man who can nevertheless pronounce the word “Doritos” in a great, elongated way.
Lady Bird toggles between her long-term bestie Julie (Beanie Feldstein), with whom she can discuss the big topics, like whether dry humping is more enjoyable than sex, and the cool kid Jenna (Odeya Rush), who is reprimanded for the shortness of her skirt and is scared of the big hills in San Francisco.
As a reluctant participant in a school musical, Lady Bird is carried along by the enthusiasm of her gentleman caller Danny (Lucas Hedges), but also catches a feeling for the fox-faced Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), who attracts her by toting the tome of all woke high schoolers: Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States.”
Throughout, you’re aware you’re watching a Greta Gerwig film, so it’s disconcerting not to see her starring as well. Those familiar with Gerwig’s hilarious scripts and acting turns for “Frances Ha” and “Mistress America” will feel her in almost every line but must cope with the fact that we don’t see Greta delivering them. Ronan is a fine actor but she does not offer the bubbling physical comedy of her director.
The attendance of private Catholic school is treated fairly, as Lady Bird finds the authority figures she needs, like drama teacher Father Leviatch (an impactful Stephen McKinley Henderson) and principal Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), who actually has great advice, even as she’s forced to reprimand Lady Bird for making an excellent abortion joke at the expense of a pro-life speaker.
While “Lady Bird” is in most ways a tale as old as time, it’s also a pleasurable early 2000s period piece — we get to enjoy again puka shell necklaces, Adidas Superstars, clamshell phones and, at the fall cotillion, that classic Bone Thugs-N-Harmony ballad “Tha Crossroads.”
Expertly cutting down a screenplay that once weighed in at 350 pages, Gerwig captures the swiftly arriving landmarks of senior year. Before we know it, the school dances are all over and Lady Bird is old enough to buy cigarettes, scratch tickets and “Playgirl” magazines.
‘Lady Bird’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated R. Running time 1:34. Visit cinemawest.com.