“The only exciting thing about 2002 is that it’s a palindrome,” bemoans Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior at an all-girls Catholic school gazing longingly toward the promise of adulthood. Christine, who prefers the moniker “Lady Bird,” dreams of attending one of those “liberal east coast schools” and leaving behind a life that doesn’t feel particularly fulfilling. “I want to live through something,” she says wistfully, shortly before ending an argument with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) by diving out of a moving car and breaking her arm.
Returning to school with a cast that matches the streak of pink in her otherwise blonde hair, Christine falls into a routine of casual rebellion, stealing communion bread with her best friend (Beanie Feldstein), placing a “Just Married” (to Jesus) sign on a nun’s car and defying her mother’s wishes by applying for out-of-state colleges the family likely can’t afford – especially with her father (Tracy Letts) out of work and suffering from clinical depression. Christine also attempts to ingratiate herself with the popular kids by pretending to live in an upscale neighborhood, even though she gleefully introduces herself to a romantic interest by blurting out “I’m from the wrong side of the tracks.” It’s meant as a joke, but that particular choice of words eventually comes back to haunt Christine, the same of which can be said for many of the impetuous choices she makes.
Working long hours at the clinic to keep the family afloat, Christine’s mother is irritable and judgmental, much to her daughter’s chagrin. But Christine herself bears some of the blame for this strained relationship, demanding that she and her idiosyncracies be accepted unconditionally, but refusing to give the same in return. She rarely considers the consequences of her actions or how they might affect other people, and often finds herself in awkward situations that could have been avoided completely with a little forethought – a skill she obviously hasn’t yet mastered.
Ronan is no stranger to award season buzz, having already received Oscar nominations for Best Supporting Actress (2007’s Atonement) and Best Actress (2015’s Brooklyn), but her performance in Lady Bird – the most complex and captivating role of her young career – is on another plane entirely. Equally great is Metcalf, a longtime veteran of the stage who rarely gets the opportunity to showcase her immense range in front of the camera, and swings for the fences in each and every scene.
Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird deftly sidesteps many of the pitfalls that plague other coming-of-age tales by daring to illustrate the flaws in each of its characters. Even though some of the beats are familiar – first romance, senior prom, the agonizing wait for college acceptance letters – the constant unpredictability of our heroine makes for plenty of surprises (most of them hilarious), turning the whole experience into something that feels incredibly fresh, original and vital.