Saoirse Ronan is my new favorite actress and 'Lady Bird' is wonderful

Courtesy of A24

Courtesy of A24

I first came to appreciate Saoirse Ronan seeing her Academy Award-nominated performance in the 2015 film, "Brooklyn." That was actually her second Oscar nomination, the first coming when she was 13 for her role in "Atonement."

In "Brooklyn," Ronan played a young woman who probably seemed older than she was because it was the 1950s, and back then, people came of age and settled down approximately three careers earlier than young people do today.

But in "Lady Bird," Ronan plays a high school senior from 2003 so believably that it led me to look up her age in the first place. (She was born in 1994).

If her character from "Brooklyn" represents a certain repressed quiet dignity, she's playing the exact opposite in "Lady Bird" -- the title of the movie, for example, is the name that the character gives herself, an indication of her confidence and unique way of seeing the world that also causes her later in the film to shoot at a stranger the words, “People go by the names their parents give them, but they don't believe in God.”

Courtesy of A24

Courtesy of A24

Lady Bird is a free spirit, and the film is a portrait of the circumstances when the character first started flying away from her nest. It's a coming-of-age story as timeless as anything in literature or film. Ronan's stunning performance captures the naive, raw explosiveness of adolescence with empathetic wisdom. She's one of the strongest performers working today, if you ask me.

Writer-director Greta Gerwig has created something special with "Lady Bird," which is as much a frustrated love letter to youth as it is to the specific place of Sacramento. Here comes my personal attachment to the movie: I grew up an hour south of Sacramento, and I graduated high school and left home not long after the main character did, so the establishment of location in the film connected with me especially strongly.

I believe that the place one lives is always an essential part of the whole story of a person, but that might be especially true of childhood home towns, which represent the entirety of someone's world before they travel more widely. 

Gerwig apparently grew up in Sacramento too, and I love the strange affection that she so clearly has for it. At one point, while outside of California, a guy asks Lady Bird where she's from, and when she responds, "Sacramento," he asks her to repeat herself, and she says, "San Francisco."

I think I have had similar conversations. Everybody knows the big coastal cities, but the inland, valley cities and towns in the northern middle of the state are a part of California rarely given much attention.

Gerwig's attention to detail and her affection for the locations in "Lady Bird" are just a small part of the exceptional beauty of the film.

In addition to Ronan's stunning and complex performance, Lady Bird's mother Marion is played with intensity and specific clarity by Laurie Metcalf. Like her daughter, Marion is a flawed character with jagged edges and an enormous capacity for love. The fraught relationship they have is the emotional core of the film, and it is richly satisfying to watch.

Courtesy of A24

Courtesy of A24

I love all the supporting characters, too. Beanie Feldstein is terrific as Lady Bird's best friend Julie. Lucas Hedges gives incredible depth and vulnerability to his role as Danny, her first love. And two of the adult figures at Lady Bird's Catholic school, one played by Lois Smith and the other played by Stephen Henderson, add a great deal of color to the world with small amounts of screen time.

Henderson's performance is one of the little touches of the film that I can't stop thinking about. He plays Father Leviatch, the drama teacher who is full of gentle warmth, as well as loneliness. After the school musical plays about as well as you would expect and it is received by an audience of dutiful parents rather than hungry patrons of art, Father Leviatch regretfully mourns, "They didn't get it." It's the kind of line that is both comedic and purely soulful.

Courtesy of A24

Courtesy of A24

Basically, I loved everyone and everything in "Lady Bird." I'm grateful the movie exists, and I'll be revisiting its insightful wisdom and empathetic worldview for years to come.

Derrick Clements is an independent arts reporter, podcaster, columnist and film critic. Follow him on Twitter @derrific and find all his work at derrickclements.com.

Review: 'Lady Bird'
Grade: A
Director: Greta Gerwig
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothee Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson and Lois Smith
Running time: 1 hour, 34 min
Rating: R for language, sexual content, brief graphic nudity and teen partying