I’ve always been fascinated to see what happens when a prominent actor or actress decides to take a seat behind the camera and make a truly personal artistic statement. From the stunningly dark visuals and spirit of Charles Laughton’s 1955 moody masterpiece “Night of the Hunter” to Clint Eastwood’s moody 1971 thriller “Play Misty for Me,” on down through Tom Hanks’ 1996 showbiz dramedy “That Thing You Do!” and Jason Bateman’s 2013 comedy “Bad Words,” a solid directorial debut offers intriguing insights into their creative process and true passions.

Yet even among these acclaimed and often beloved films, few stand out as more self-assured and personal than indie goddess Greta Gerwig’s current writing-directing debut, “Lady Bird.” Coming off a string of acclaimed cult comedies in which she delivered a series of performances that were giddy, goofy and earnest all at once, it would have been easy to assume that any creation of Gerwig would be a lightweight soufflé.

Surprisingly, her debut film, “Lady Bird,” while seemingly just another coming-of-age story set against a backdrop of 1980s rock and pop music, achieves some serious emotional resonance. Depicting the senior year of a gawky yet cute teenage girl in 1983 Sacramento who calls herself “Lady Bird,” the movie provides a wise and affecting look at teenagers trying to figure their place in the world.

It’s also a powerful portrait of the bond between mothers and daughters and — even rarer — a respectful homage to small-town life and the close emotional connections it can bring.

The movie offers a slice-of-life look at a girl named Christine (Saiorse Ronan) who has renamed herself “Lady Bird” in order to stand out from the crowd both at home and at school. Feeling trapped in nondescript Sacramento, she dreams of fleeing to a college on the East Coast where she can pursue a drama degree and never look back.

But Lady Bird has a few basic problems. First, she doesn’t have the grades to achieve an Ivy League education; second, her plain-Jane and depressed yet caring mom (Laurie Metcalf) feels that any choice that takes Lady Bird out of the area is a deep rejection of her and all that she’s done for the girl. And third, the financially struggling family is hard-pressed to afford any type of college, much less the most elite ones around.

Yet Lady Bird still does her best to walk the line between relatively mild rebellion and being a straight arrow. Along the way, she has to navigate one close teenager’s life in the closet, whether to trust another boy enough to be her first sexual experience, and figure out how far to let her freak flag fly.

These are universally touching matters, ones that nearly everyone faces at some point in their life while growing up in America. Gerwig, however, does a remarkable job of making these eminently relatable and often funny moments resonate with everyone even as much of its beauty and humor are rooted in the odd details of life in Catholic schools.

The relationship between Lady Bird and her mother is one for the ages, beautifully drawn and wonderfully portrayed by Ronan and Metcalf. Both are likely to be nominated for Oscars this coming spring, along with the stellar writing and directing talents of Gerwig. This is the breakout arthouse hit of the year. I urge you strongly to go and see why.  Grade: A

 

Capsule Reviews

ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

Stars: Denzel Washington

Length: 129 minutes

Directed by: Dan Gilroy

Rating: PG13

This very odd slice-of-life tale of an unbalanced lawyer struggling with serious personality disorders who gets involved in several cases he shouldn’t and then has to face severe consequences seems more like a quirky acting showcase for Washington than a fully formed movie. Denzel Washington seems to have done this movie solely as a beg for a third Oscar, but it’s all quirks, no substance.   Grade: C

MURDER ON THE      ORIENT EXPRESS

Stars: Kenneth Branagh, Michelle Pfeiffer, Johnny Depp

Length: 115 minutes

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh

Rating: PG13

This remake of the 1974 Oscar-winning hit movie and depiction of Agatha Christie’s classic mystery novel is superb filmmaking on every imaginable level: the score, cinematography and performances are all stunning. The final twist is also thoroughly unexpected, while also lending the film a gravitas that most Hollywood mysteries lack. A major contender for this  year’s Oscars.  Grade: A

DADDY’S HOME 2

Stars: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Mel Gibson, John Lithgow

Length: 100 minutes

Directed by: Sean Anders

Rating: PG13

This sequel to the 2015 smash follows Ferrell and Wahlberg as a father and stepfather who overcame their comical competition for their kids’ attention. This time, they’re ridiculously close friends, but the arrival of Wahlberg’s macho monster dad (Gibson) and Ferrell’s touchy-feely father (Lithgow) creates new, fairly hilarious complications. A lot of great subtle commentaries on the state of families and our obsession with cellphones amid the slapstick.  Grade: B

THOR: RAGNAROK

Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Cate Blanchett, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston

Length: 130 minutes

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Rating: PG13

The third in the “Thor” trilogy is an utter blast, cranking up the action and laugh lines to nonstop entertaining levels that make this better than the first two combined. Star Chris Hemsworth should be an interantional superstar, period, but this is a showcase of swaggering movie stardom at its finest. Cate Blanchett adds fun evil to the mix as the sister he has to team up with brother Loki to bring down.  Grade: A

BAD MOMS CHRISTMAS

Stars: Mila Kunis, Kathryn Hahn, Kristen Bell, Christine Baranski

Length: 104 minutes

Directed by: Jon Lucas and Scott Moore

Rating: R

This sequel to the surprise 2016 hit about suburban moms who decided to rebel against the demands of perfection tones some of the original’s excessive raunch down while adding some heartfelt moments. The arrivals of ace veterans Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon as the moms they have conflicts with elevates this to make it one of the funniest movies of the year.  Grade: A