Lady Bird: Flawless Saoirse Ronan in a wholly wonderful film

Review: The film’s genius is its ability to root us in Lady Bird’s perspective. But it does more

Lady Bird
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Director: Greta Gerwig
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet
Running Time: 1 hr 34 mins

The defining moment in Greta Gerwig's serious comedy flits by in an apparently insignificant flash. Continuing a quotidian squabble that ebbs and flows, but rarely halts, the self styled "Lady Bird", played by a flawless Saoirse Ronan, and her mother Marion, granted angular decency by an equally excellent Laurie Metcalf, make their way noisily along the aisle of a clothing store.

"Please stop yelling," Marion says. "I'm not yelling," Lady Bird nearly yells. They pause as Mom happens upon a suitable dress. "Oh, that's perfect," the daughter laughs. "You love it?" her mother replies.

If we didn’t know before, we know now that neither woman is fully committed to her antagonism. This is, most probably, not going to be one of those tragic familial relationships – the sort you find in Anne Tyler novels – that never recovers from early slights and cruelties.

Lady Bird, Gerwig's first feature as a solo director, catches Marion and her daughter near an awkward corner they may never have to manoeuvre again.


One element of the film's genius is its ability to root us firmly in Lady Bird's perspective. It does more. Without resorting to hokey voice-over, the picture gives us the sense of a life remembered at a few decades' remove. (The choice of Stephen Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along for the school show can be no accident.)

Because we’re always with Lady Bird, Marion comes across as a permanent antagonist. She won’t buy the kid a magazine. She can’t bring herself to deliver an unqualified compliment.

But Gerwig’s script gestures towards the pressures that fall upon a woman forced to take up the financial slack when circumstances run roughly. Metcalf’s creased face suggests a woman – working endless shifts for little thanks – who can’t find the time or the energy to bridge the emotional gap.

All of which is a way of confirming that, despite its airy tone, this wholly wonderful film – the equal of any other nominated for best picture at this year’s Oscars – contains intriguing multitudes.

If Lady Bird actually did have a hokey voice-over, it would tell us that: "It was the spring of 2002 and, in suburban Sacramento, Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson was not getting on with her mother."

The mobile phone has arrived, but youths have not yet becomes its slaves. Our hero has wild ambitions to escape the west and make for college in bohemian New York “or at least Connecticut”.

Unimpressed by the girl’s grades or attitude, Mom thinks she should settle for community college in the state capital. Over the next few weeks, Lady Bird falls for a nice boy (lovely Lucas Hedges) and a hilariously pretentious, would-be bad boy (ubiquitous Timothée Chalamet).

She betrays her best friend for a more popular, better-off schoolmate. She warbles in that Sondheim show. Through it all, her recently unemployed dad – the subtlety of Tracy Letts’s performance has been criminally overlooked by awards voters – offers dignified support despite creeping depression.

Ronan slips back into teenage angst with staggering confidence. Face lightly dusted by acne, her limbs never doing what the brain tells them to do, Lady Bird is so consumed with the desire to become somebody else that she fails to appreciate the joys of being herself.

There is no shortage of voices offering guidance. For somebody so often identified as the most fashionable of cinematic hipsters, Gerwig proves (not for the first time) to have an enormously generous spirit.

Nobody is perfect in the Lady Bird universe. But nobody is convincingly malign either. Marion gets her moment of catharsis. Lady Bird is eventually allowed the chance to breath.

Our hero takes an amusing swipe at "pro-life" activists, but the helpful priests and dedicated nuns in her convent school provide the most positive cinematic depiction of the Catholic Church since Song of Bernadette. Fair enough.

In short, only a cad could resist it.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist