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Thursday, Nov. 30, 2017 12:04 am

Ronan, Gerwig soar with Lady Bird

 

Tell me if you’ve heard this one – a teenage girl, feeling lost and misunderstood, goes to a new high school where her feelings of isolation are assuaged a bit when she meets and becomes friends with a fellow outsider. Over the course of the school year she meets her first love, finds herself attracted to the resident bad boy, and abandons her friend in favor of someone in a higher social strata. During this time, our heroine dreams of going to a faraway college so that she can escape from her domineering, disapproving mother.

There’s nothing new story-wise where Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird is concerned, yet the magic of the film is that somehow it seems that we are seeing it, if not for the first time, with a sense of discovery. There’s a light about the titular character, whose given name is Christine, that we hope isn’t crushed by circumstance, self-doubt or one bad decision. We see the passion, the potential and the curiosity within her and end up hoping and praying that this vital young woman gets her chance.

The empathy we feel toward Lady Bird is due in large part to the ebullient performance of Saoirse Ronan. The similarities between Christine and her character Eilis in Brooklyn are obvious, but the actress’ approach to each role couldn’t be more different. Being quiet and reserved is not part of Lady Bird’s makeup, and Ronan brings a ferocity to the part that’s indicative of an impulsive woman her age that acts without thinking and ultimately comes to regret her actions. The actress is real in every moment of the movie, never more so than when she’s begging her mother, Marion, for her forgiveness over something she should never have to apologize for.

As the domineering matriarch of the McPherson clan, Laurie Metcalf brings a realism to the role that’s spot on. You’ve met women like Marion before – always a bit frantic, ever the martyr, nothing out of her mouth but complaints or passive-aggressive criticism – the kind of woman who means well but leaves misery, which she’s happy to have caused, in her wake. The actress inhabits the role like a second skin, and it’s to her credit that Marion doesn’t come off as a one-note villain but rather a woman who had her own hopes and dreams. She does want Lady Bird to succeed, but on her terms, not her daughter’s – which proves to be her fatal flaw.

There are so many moments of pure delight as well as bracing reality in this movie due to Gerwig’s witty script and subtle direction. This is never more evident than in the work of Tracy Letts in the role of Lady Bird’s put upon father, Larry. Out of work and browbeaten by Marion, he knows exactly what his role is in the family and dutifully retreats most of the time. That he stands up when his daughter needs him most is one of the film’s most satisfying moments.

There’s never a scene that feels calculated or rushed, never a line reading that seems less than honest or heartfelt. These characters and their lives have a lived-in feel to them that prevents the film from seeming like just another coming-of-age story. Everyone involved put a bit of their soul into their work and it shows, all of which contributes to making Lady Bird one of the best films of 2017.

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