On paper the teen angst of “Lady Bird”—teen heartbreak, mom issues and blossoming sexuality—sounds like something we’ve seen before. “Where’s Molly Ringwald?” you might ask. And yet, though this may be well-trod ground, writer-director Greta Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical look at her California upbringing hits the ground running. It feels fresh, simultaneously heartfelt and spirited.
(NOTE TO READER: This synopsis does not do the movie justice. Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs.)
Saoirse Ronan is Christine McPherson, a Catholic School teen who goes by the name Lady Bird. “Lady Bird. Is that your given name,” Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson) asks. “It is,” she replies. “I gave it to myself.” She lives in Sacramento—“The Midwest of California.”—with mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), unemployed father Larry (Tracy Letts) and two adopted siblings. She’s a theatre kid who, along with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), performs in plays, plan for their future college careers and develop crushes on cute classmates.
Lady Bird learns about life and love through dalliances with two boys; the sweet natured Danny (Lucas Hedges) and edgy rocker dude Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). The key relationship in her life, however, is her mother. The two are deeply connected yet cannot see eye-to-eye, especially when it comes to Lady Bird’s choice of university.
Gerwig’s skilful handling of the story of Lady Bird’s busy senior year works not just because it’s unvarnished and honest in its look at becoming an adult but also, in a large degree, to Ronan’s performance. I have long called her ‘Lil Meryl. She’s an actor of unusual depth, a young person (born in 1994) with an old soul. Lady Bird is almost crushed by the weight of uncertainty that greets her with every turn—will her parents divorce, will there be money for school, will Kyle be the boy of her dreams, will she ever make enough cash to repay her parents for her upbringing—but Ronan keeps her nimble, sidestepping teen ennui with a complicated mix of snappy one liners, hard earned wisdom and a well of emotion. It’s tremendous, Academy Award worthy work.
“Lady Bird” bangs familiar gongs but Gerwig and Ronan, with ample help from the supporting cast, help those notes resonate loudly and clearly. The material is tenderly observed on both sides of the camera, imbued with a refreshingly genuine point of view.