Saoirse Ronan the star attraction at Dublin screening of Lady Bird

Irish star may become only third female actor to score three Oscar nominations before age 23

A little bit of Oscar season touched down in Smithfield on Friday night when Saoirse Ronan attended a VIP screening of Greta Gerwig's irresistible Lady Bird at the Light House Cinema.

Detailing the troubled relationship between an angry daughter and a fraught mother in millennial Sacramento, the American actor’s debut as director is certain to figure strongly in next month’s Oscar nominations.

Ronan should, barring catastrophes, become only the third female actor to score three nominations before the age of 23, for her role. The film is also a major contender for best picture.

Most pundits have Laurie Metcalfe, who plays Ronan's mother, as the ante-post favourite for best supporting actress. The film opens here in late February.

Like the protagonist, Gerwig came of age in the Californian state capital in the early part of the last decade, but Ronan insisted the film wasn’t as autobiographical as many have assumed.

“We’re seeing someone at a time when everything is rolling along faster than she can keep up with,” she said in a Q&A after the screening. “It needed two women to come together who definitely were not Lady Bird when they were teenagers. The two of us were not as rebellious as she was. I certainly didn’t dye my hair. I didn’t do any of that. We came together on this because we wanted to become her so much.”

Prestigious college

The picture takes the character through the last few months of her time at a Catholic School. A smart girl, the self-named Lady Bird – actually Christine – yearns to study at some prestigious college on the East Coast (Gerwig went to Barnard College in New York City), but she may not quite have the grades and her financially strapped parents may not quite be able to afford the tuition fees. Mom and daughter are constantly at daggers drawn. We suspect, however, that they love each other more than either is prepared to admit.

“Laurie and I had a few hours together one afternoon,” Ronan explained. “We just went over all the argument scenes. They are each so different and it was very important to work out what the trigger points were. We had to work out if they were more emotional or more hot-headed. The thing about that dynamic is that it’s totally filled with love and they are at the point where they just can’t understand one another. It hasn’t been like that before for them and it won’t be like that again.”

Lady Bird has already opened in the United States to strong box office and stunning critical acclaim. Its opening weekend delivered the second best per-screen average of 2017 and the highest ever per-screen average for a film in limited release directed by a woman.

Meanwhile, critics were going bananas. It has broken the record for the longest string of uninterrupted positive notices ever collated by the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes. As the film unspooled at the Light House, the score was still 194 positive reviews to zero negative notices. It is hard to see how anybody could dislike it.

Different characters

“I have been doing press for the last two weeks and I have kind of figured out how to describe it,” Ronan said. “I think she is neither one thing nor the other. You can’t pin her down or categorise her. So much attention has been paid to every detail. In its essence it’s about a person figuring themselves out. It’s about trying on all these different characters to see which one fits. The heart of it is that relationship between a mother and a daughter.”

Ronan has scarcely put a foot wrong in recent years. Her Oscar-nominated turn in Brooklyn was followed by an acclaimed performance in a production of Arthur Miller's The Crucible on Broadway. Her turn as one half of a sexually confused couple in a film adaptation of Ian McEwan's On Chesil Beach was well received at the recent Toronto Film Festival. We will also see her on screen as Mary Queen of Scots next year.

“It’s a bit more stripped back. It’s not as embellished as other period dramas would be,” she said of that film. “She was left with all this responsibility she wasn’t prepped for. She was incredible. She never had much luck. It got a bit messy at the end.”

Before that emerges, Saoirse will have to run the gauntlet that comes with an Oscar campaign. Last week she hosted Saturday Night Live. Next week the awards train really cranks into gear. She has already won best actress from the New York Film Critics Circle and is as short as 4/1 with a major bookmaker for the Oscar. Expect her to make few errors in the surrounding interviews. Mind you, she did drop an interesting hint at The Light House.

“I have had this experience before when the film is focused mainly on female relationships and the supporting male can’t get his head around the fact that he’s not the lead,” she said when acknowledging Tracy Letts’s generous performance as her dad. “I remember being in something and the end was me and this other actress. This actor was like: ‘I kind of think we should come back to my character.’ Well, you cheated on the mother and left 40 minutes before the film finished?”

The audience made a collective note to check the Internet Movie Database when they got home.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

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