The holiday has me running a little ragged, so I don't have time for a full appreciation, but some thoughts:
My two words to myself as the screen went black were exactly what BJ said in his first sentence: lovely movie. Two things that you'd think have been done to death are the teen movie and the growing-up memoir, but god, as always, is in the details, because this movie feels fully fresh. I think Gerwig could repeat to herself the words that Sr. Lois Smith says about her essay -- that she's given attention and love to her subject, and made something beautiful out of it, which is always a cause for gratitude.
She also displays an extremely light touch, both as a writer and director. When Lady Bird and Danny had that wonderful scene lying under the stars together, I found myself thinking, this is too early in the film, something obviously is going to go wrong, and I dreaded the idea of the scenes where it would happen. I was right, of course, things did go south, but the scenes I'd dreaded didn't turn up, because the whole event was reduced to quick gestures -- the discovery, the crying with her friend, moving on to the next. The movie takes something of a grown-up's view of the life of a teenager: things happen fast, and most of them don't amount to anything. Events are shown proper respect, but not dwelled upon. Similarly, the conflicts between Lady Bird and her mother are real, and in many movies would lead to explosive confrontations, but here, as in real life, they're played out in small ways -- like Metcalf's minute reaction to hearing the phrase "wrong side of the tracks". They register, but they're not made a big deal of, which is a lot like life, not the movies.
I was amazed the film was only 90 minutes long, because it seemed densely packed with detail and incident. So many things made me laugh -- the hilariously inappropriate choice of Merrily We Roll Along (a show that baffled NY audiences in a high school?), the absurd but so-high-school substitution of the football coach for the director -- but just as many touched me, especially in in the revelation of the unsent letters, and everything to do with Tracey Letts' situation. This film may offer the most honest depiction of social class any pop American movie has displayed in years -- the film doesn't just illustrate the economic divide, it shows us the tiny, day-to-day ways in which it makes a difference. Some of these scenes (the revelation of the fake address, Letts losing his job) were a bit painful, but not agonizing -- they just seemed part of life, leading the characters to work out next steps, rather than collapsing in humiliation. Again: light touch.
(About the Stephen McKinley Henderson plot-line -- it may well be it went somewhere but was cut for time consideration. Or maybe Gerwig meant it to be mysterious, and the scene's real purpose was to show us a side of Metcalf that neither we nor her daughter ever saw.)
I agree the film's ending is not ideal, and concur with both BJ's hilarious description of how Gerwig arrived at it and his statement that it didn't at all change the overall reaction to the work. This is partly because, after stumbling around for 5-10 minutes, she closes on a perfect grace note. I'm thinking the words she speaks to her mother are maybe more the words a 30-year-old Gerwig is articulating than something an 18-year-old could manage, but that's okay. In a sense, the whole movie is the older/wiser Gerwig looking back and seeing shades of gray that she didn't notice as she was barreling through.
I first saw Laurie Metcalf in a Steppenwolf/Circle Rep production of Lanford Wilson's Balm in Gilead in 1984, wherein she had a monologue that was one of the greatest things I've ever seen in a theatre. Though I was pleased for what Roseanne did for her career, I felt it never showed her off to the full extent of her gifts. This here is more like it. I went in thinking Metcalf was going to kill, and maybe felt a tad misled -- she was perfectly wonderful, but, like others, I thought she never quite had a killer scene. Her best moments are quite subtle -- like that look she gives her daughter in response to "Maybe this is the best me there's ever going to be". It's a full-bodied, excellent supporting performance, but I worry it may not be showy enough for awards. I'll be happy to be proven wrong.
Saoirse Ronan, though, I think IS a knockout here. She's incredibly vivid, and covers an extraordinary range. She behaves very badly, sometimes inexcusably, but I never lost my basic sympathy/empathy for her -- she was so fully present at ever moment, I couldn't take my eyes off her. I think this performance goes WAY beyond what she did in Brooklyn (and I thought she was excellent there). This is a star-making role, and her spirit carries the film.
I'm fully expecting to be disappointed by some movie along the way, but, so far, my sampling of the Oscar season movies has left me extremely satisfied. Both Three Billboards and Lady Bird are absolutely top drawer contenders.