Saoirse Ronan turns in her best performance yet in this delightful feel good drama with some very sharp edges
On the surface, Lady Bird may seem like it’s all been done before. Here we have Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson, a precocious teenage girl growing up in California in 2002 with a sharp tongue and big dreams. She hangs out with her dorky and loveable best friend, tries to impress the resident high school mean girl, experiments romantically with sweet boys and unsuitable cool guys...
Throw in a fraught build-up to prom night, a school play and choir practice, and Greta Gerwig’s second movie as director could be a John Hughes’ teen flick with a degree in Eng. Lit. But Gerwig, who has already proved her acting talents in Frances Ha and Miss America, easefully turns teen movie conventions on their head by telling a simple coming of age story in a charming and naturalistic way, in what is a semi-autobiographical account of her own upbringing in Sacramento, "the midwest of California."
If the kids in The Breakfast Club or even Election had a heightened and freighted sense of their own self-importance, Lady Bird is a far more realistic portrayal of teen angst, desires and hopes. Neither is it twee or cutesy like Gerwig’s other high school movie Damsels in Distress or Jason Reitman's teen drama Juno.
In the title role, Saoirse Ronan turns in her best performance yet. She is understated when she needs to be and operatically over-dramatic too (you’ll have seen the scene when she pitches herself out of a speeding car during another blazing row with her mother). Styling herself Lady Bird, she affects a boho chic with her choice in thrift shop clothes and pink hair and talks airily about her plans to escape her lowly background and study in New York.
There is also that most unfashionable of things - a warm and positive portrayal of the Catholic Church at the school where Lady Bird and Julie discuss sex at the altar and scoff communion wafers like they’re Doritos.
Laurie Metcalf is equally superb as Lady Bird’s clucking and tutting mother Marion, who works as a nurse in the local hospital and seems to be permanently in her uniform or scrubs. She battles wearily to keep her family in one piece and is terrified that her young daughter will inevitably grow up and fly the nest, one of the central themes in this short and impactful film.
Their relationship is just one long squabble that either escalates into full-on shouting matches interrupted briefly by moments of warmth and love. A scene when mother and daughter shop for a prom dress is a master class in restraint and well-written dialogue. Lady Bird’s interactions with her depressed father (Tracy Letts) are far more tender and despite his own personal problems, he remains steadfast and almost serene as the civil war rages at home.
Her dalliances with boys, first with sweet kid Danny (Lucas Hedges) and emo prototype Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) are both hilarious and touching, but it is Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie who is the third best thing about the movie. She’s goofy and very funny with perhaps a touch of Rebel Wilson. There is also that most unfashionable of things - a warm and positive portrayal of the Catholic Church at the school where Lady Bird and Julie discuss sex at the altar and scoff communion wafers like they’re Doritos.
The sense of time and location is deftly handled. Post-9/11 paranoia and the build-up to the Iraq war murmurs away in the background on the TV and Lady Bird has posters of Riot Grrrl bands Bikini Kill and Sleater-Kinney on her bedroom wall. A home computer sits blinking in the corner of her parent’s living room and seems used primarily to play Patience. In one scene, the ineffably cool and pretty Kyle dismisses technology and casually tells Lady Bird that the clunky mobile phone that she's cradling will one day come to dominate her life. How happy we were in those pre-social media times.
Gerwig directs in an unobtrusive and almost languorous style ("the Midwest of California" it may be but Sacramento looks like a sun-dappled idyll) and the script sparkles with great one-liners and sparky dialogue while the basic production values lend it an almost seventies indie flick feel.
It’s a delightful feel good drama with some very sharp edges that will be seen as a classic portrayal of the joys and agonies but mostly agonies of being a teenager. In fact, Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson is such an infuriating and likeable character, who’s to say we won’t revisit her again on screen as she tackles another one of life’s hurdles? Actually, maybe it will be better to dwell on the tantalising thought of what Lady Bird did next.
Alan Corr @corralan