Two years ago, Greta Gerwig and Saoirse Ronan were holed up in Ronan’s hotel room at the Toronto International Film Festival, drinking Cokes and running through the entire script of a movie Gerwig had written titled “Lady Bird.”
Gerwig took the stage with her cast in Toronto on Friday night, as the packed crowd in the Ryerson Theatre stood and applauded loudly. Gerwig leaned on actress Beanie Feldstein’s shoulder while taking deep breaths and trying to hold it together.
“Every time I see the cast, I just lose it,” Gerwig told me later during a hotel rooftop party. “I don’t know when or if that’s going to stop. I’ll probably be crying my way through the entire press tour.”
She won’t be alone.
Following a stirring premiere last week at the Telluride Film Festival, “Lady Bird” landed another emotional wallop to the Toronto audience. Gerwig’s coming-of-age story follows a free-thinking high school senior, Lady Bird (Ronan), looking to escape Sacramento (or as she calls it “the Midwest of California”). Gerwig told me she really sees the movie as a love story between a strong-willed mother (impeccably played by Laurie Metcalf) and her equally fierce-minded daughter.
That mother-daughter relationship is one of the many sharply drawn aspects of “Lady Bird” that is causing a stir with audiences. Gerwig says she has talked to scores of women after screenings who have told her they have been that mother or that daughter depicted in the film or that they hope their daughters do a better job of raising their girls than they did.
“I just want to hug everybody … and I do,” she told me, laughing. “I probably hug more people than is appropriate.”
Academy voters have swooned for coming-of-age stories recently, mostly because of their undeniable artistry. Two of the very best movies of the past three years — Barry Jenkins’ “Moonlight” and Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” — took the genre to unexpected places both in form and emotional depth.
“Lady Bird,” too, possesses that special something, courtesy of Gerwig’s keen ear and eye for the way mothers and daughters and adolescent girls relate to each other. Like all great movies, there’s both an authentic specificity to the storytelling as well as a broader truth that makes it universal. (Hence, the hugs.) Everyone has a home, one they’ve left and one they’re trying to build.
Then there’s the acting.
Metcalf remains best known for her work as Roseanne Barr’s neurotic younger sister on “Roseanne,” a role that won her three Emmys and a role she’s returned to for the upcoming series reboot.
But Metcalf’s greatest work (and this is arguable because she has turned in so many fine performances) has come in the past year. She was mesmerizing in a standalone episode of Louis C.K.’s online series “Horace and Pete,” which opened with a nearly 10-minute closeup of the actress as her character spun a story about a weird, erotic encounter she had with her elderly father-in-law. Metcalf earned an Emmy nomination for that turn, no small feat given how few people saw C.K.’s brilliant series.
And Metcalf also won a Tony a few months ago for playing Nora Helmer, Henrik Ibsen’s famous heroine, in Lucas Hnath’s play “A Doll’s House, Part 2.” (Scott Rudin, who produced that play, produced “Lady Bird” as well.)
I think it’s pretty safe to say Metcalf will be going to the Oscars as a nominee for the first time this year for her work here as Lady Bird’s complicated, demanding mother.
She could well be joined by Ronan, a two-time nominee for “Atonement” and “Brooklyn,” who slips into the title character’s skin in the kind of spirited turn that will win plenty of hearts and votes. (Ronan couldn’t return to Toronto with Gerwig as she’s shooting “Mary Queen of Scots.” “Not a small task,” Gerwig notes.)
“Lady Bird” will open in theaters on Nov. 10, perhaps enough time for Gerwig to stop getting teary-eyed when she sees her cast. But maybe not. This is a tightknit group.
“I don’t want to cry, but that’s pretty much impossible talking about Greta,” Feldstein told me on that hotel rooftop.
In the movie, she plays Julie, Lady Bird’s best friend and a musical theater nerd. In real life, Feldstein is a musical theater star, currently playing Minnie Fay in “Hello Dolly!” on Broadway. In fact, she had a matinee performance in about 14 hours.
“Yeah, I better get going,” she said. “But there’s no way I would have missed this. I’m so proud of the movie and so proud of Greta. I had to be here.”
“This sounds utterly cheesy,” Gerwig adds, “but I mean it: I made this movie for 15-year-old girls to see and they might think, ‘Hey, I could do that too.’
“I’ve been given too many opportunities and met too many strong women not to do this. I’ve been putting it off for far too long, making excuses. I had to jump. I had to give myself the chance because I want more women and girls to make movies.”