Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwing Are a Winning Team in ‘Lady Bird’

For her directorial debut, actress and writer Greta Gerwig gets personal for the coming-of-age dramedy “Lady Bird.” Saoirse Ronan stars as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a character based on Gerwig’s younger self, a 17-year-old girl living in Sacramento in the early 2000s. Laurie Metcalf co-stars as Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, an overtired nurse who struggles to find common ground with her daughter who dreams of fleeing her humdrum hometown (“the midwest of California”) to study in New York. The film opens with the women arguing about Lady Bird’s college plans, an argument that quickly escalates and ends with the younger woman throwing herself out of a moving car, setting the tone for the rest of the film which at its heart is about strong women and their different values and choices. While “Lady Bird” includes many hallmarks of a high school film, Gerwig treats the characters and situations in such an authentic way to make her film transcend that teen genre.

With her pink hair and insistence that everyone call her by a whimsical name that she herself picked out, Lady Bird stands out amongst her more conforming classmates at Immaculate Heart, the private all-girls school that her parents scraped to send her to after her older brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), witnessed a stabbing at the public high school. Lady Bird may be eccentric, but not in an obnoxious way, as the versatile Ronan, who is now 23 and already has two well-deserved Oscar-nominations under belt, plays the teen with so much nuance. Despite her less-than-stellar grades and her family’s limited finances, Lady Bird dreams of attending an elite New York college. At her guidance counselor’s recommendation, she auditions for the school’s musical to bolster her college applications, and it is at this point it becomes apparent that our quirky little bird really wants the things that any other high school wants: a boyfriend and to hang with the cool kids.

Gerwig, perhaps being not that far removed from those years herself, does an excellent job here of illustrating the ups of navigating teen romance and how the fantasy rarely matches up with the reality. Lady Bird first goes for charming musical theater geek Danny (Lucas Hedges, playing a character miles away from the teen lothario he portrayed in “Manchester by the Sea,” despite their being in the same stage of life). After that ends predictably, she sets her sights on brooding musician Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). A somewhat emotionally immature 17-year-old virgin at the start of the story, she does endearing things such as writing her crushes’ names above her bed and have long talks with her equally nerdy bestie, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), about what sex must be like. All of this sexual frustration culminates in deflowering scene that is realistic and awkward without being too cringeworthy.

At the end of the day, Lady Bird’s real high school love is Julie, whom she temporarily abandons to hang with the more popular Jenna (Odeya Rush). Despite their having different ambitions in life, the two have fun together like nobody’s business. Like just about any film about the last year in high school, “Lady Bird” includes a prom scene in the final act, one that Gerwig gets to organically without getting too cheesy in a scene that is a sequence that is a true celebration of female friendship.

As for Marion, Metcalf plays her as a woman who has the toughness that comes with years of struggling to stay afloat, but at her heart this is a woman who does everything out of love for her family. For all their differences, Lady Bird and Marion are alike in some key ways. They both have dreams of a better life, which is shown so keenly in a scene in which the two are shown partaking in their favorite Sunday activity, checking out an open house in an upscale neighborhood. Metcalf is especially great in an emotionally-stirring scene in which she drops her daughter off to go to college, waiting to break down until the younger woman is out of sight, her conflicted feelings really coming across here in what might be the most brilliant performance of her illustrious career.

Although “Lady Bird” really belongs to the women, the men here certainly deserve their dues. Tracy Letts plays Lady Bird’s loving father who has high hopes for his own children despite his own career disappointments, eventually making a tremendous financial sacrifice for his daughter. The emotional performance of Stephen Henderson as a priest who seeks out mental counseling is also worth mentioning as another highlight of the film.

Lady Bird” opens Nov. 3 in select theaters.