Monday 23 September 2019

Lady Bird 5 star movie review: Saoirse Ronan shines in Greta Gerwig's wise and delightful film


Teenage kicks: Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird
Teenage kicks: Lucas Hedges and Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

It opened almost four months ago in the US, last week in the UK, and today Irish audiences will finally get the chance to watch Lady Bird and find out what all the fuss is about.

Inevitably, most of the focus around these parts has been on Saoirse Ronan's Golden Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated central performance, and much more on that in a moment.

But this is first and foremost Greta Gerwig's film. The writer and actress spent years pulling together this screenplay inspired by her own adolescence, and eventually decided to direct Lady Bird herself.

She cast Ronan as the winningly self-dramatising teen Christine 'Lady Bird' McPherson after running into her at the Toronto Film Festival in 2015. She asked the Irish actress to read through the script with her and two pages in, knew she'd found her Lady Bird. The other crucial bit of casting was the girl's mother, Marion, a hard-working nurse who loves her daughter fiercely but not always tenderly, and finds her adolescent pretensions infuriating.

Though some of you may remember her for playing Roseanne Barr's sister in Roseanne, Laurie Metcalf is a heavyweight theatre actress, and has been a key member of Chicago's Steppenwolf company for decades.

She's a brilliant foil for Ronan's juvenile histrionics, and their intense but embattled connection forms the film's comic and dramatic spine.

It's 2002 and Christine McPherson is among the more esoteric students at a Sacramento Catholic high school. Though she's not quite sure what to do with it, Christine craves attention, and has adopted a number of unsubtle notice-getting tactics. She's dyed her hair pink, tells anyone who'll listen that she intends to leave Sacramento as soon as possible for New York, "where the culture is", and has changed her name to 'Lady Bird'. It is, she says, "my given name - given to me, by me".

This latter affectation infuriates her mother, who hectors her daughter constantly and wonders aloud whether she'll get the grades to enrol in an east coast ivy league college. Maybe Marion doesn't want her baby to fly the nest, and you get the sense their passionate closeness will survive all the tests that adolescence can throw at it.

Christine's best friend at school is Julie (Beanie Feldstein), who's a whiz at maths and turns out to be a better actor than Lady Bird when they both sign up for the school drama club.

Read more: 'Some actors are naturals, Saoirse's almost unnatural'  

Lady Bird will quit the club in high dudgeon when she's overlooked for all the main parts in a production of Shakespeare's Tempest, but meanwhile has found a boyfriend in Danny (Lucas Hedges), a sweet young man who tells her he respects her too much to touch her breasts.

That apparent gallantry should set off the alarm bells, and worse is to come when she hooks up with Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), an affected twit with wealthy parents who smokes roll-ups because he doesn't want to "engage with this society".

It's all a learning curve of course, and Ronan guides us soulfully through every twist and turn. Among the many refreshing things about this film is the fact that Lady Bird isn't ultimately seeking to validate herself by finding a nice boyfriend: those romances are incidental to her search for meaning, and identity, which will be achieved through her own talent and individuality.

Read Chris Wasser's Lady Bird review here: Lady Bird 5 star movie review: 'Believe the hype - a beautiful film'

Greta Gerwig's script sparkles with wit and has the ring of truth: the film might only be partly based on her own experiences, but the fact Gerwig gave her cast her high school yearbooks and journals to help them prepare suggests a keenly felt autobiographical undercurrent. Ronan is Lady Bird, pure and simple: she has the acting equivalent of perfect pitch and her nuanced, graceful performance allows us to simultaneously laugh at, love and sympathise with the brave but spiky teen.

Her relationship with the hard-working Marion will ring true to most mothers and daughters, and Tracy Letts gives a lovely turn as Lady Bird's loving father - a gentle, defeated soul who fondly indulges his daughter's dreams. Lady Bird (15A, 94mins)

Also out this week: I, Tonya movie review: 'Enjoyable and unsettling'

I, Tonya movie review: 'Comical, tragic and all kinds of messed up' 

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