Critic's Notebook: As 'Lady Bird,' Saoirse Ronan Contains Multitudes

Courtesy of Merie Wallace/A24
'Lady Bird'

The 23-year-old actress captures the cusp between adolescence and adulthood with a rare, shimmering charm and complexity in Greta Gerwig's coming-of-age film.

Maybe because you can only lose your virginity once, it's always seemed somehow implicit that a performer could, or should, only be allowed to star in one great coming-of-age film: Carey Mulligan in An Education, Jean-Pierre Leaud in The 400 Blows, Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, Jean Seberg in Bonjour Tristesse, Ellen Page in Juno — the list is long. But someone has now broken that rule. Two years ago, Saoirse Ronan reduced many of us to blubbering idiots with her intensely moving portrait of an Irish teenager in early-1950s New York in Brooklyn, and now she's back superbly playing a very different kind of adolescent on the brink of independence in Greta Gerwig's instant classic Lady Bird.

By nature, era and circumstance, Ronan's character in Brooklyn was proper and correct in language and behavior, and was faced, in the end, with a choice between two men and two countries. In Lady Bird, Ronan's self-nicknamed Catholic high school senior, who has been severely let down by two guys (they can hardly be called men), must summon the fortitude to unshackle herself from her family ties in boring Sacramento and plunge into post-9/11 New York and college and whatever that may bring.

“I wish I could live through something,” Lady Bird states to her mother (Laurie Metcalf) at the outset, and indeed she does. Nothing is more daunting to her than her mom's smothering negativity, the latter's fear of losing her only daughter expressed in the most suffocating manner, which only further ensures the baby will run as far away as possible. Any conversation between this mother and daughter can go from zero to sixty on the hostility scale in no time, and one of the film's many wonders is the complicit skill with which Metcalf, superb as the overburdened, guilt-inducing mom, and Ronan pull off these fraught exchanges.

When confronted with adversity, Ronan's Lady Bird is consistently just pissed off rather than mortally wounded. Upon catching an initial beau making out with a guy in a bathroom stall, she merely screams and that's the end of it, while she seems more disappointed than crushed by her first lover's postcoital nonchalance. A true romantic she doesn't seem to be. One of the keys to Ronan's performance is how astutely she mixes sure-headedness with uncertainty; she makes you feel the agitation, the anxiety of her situation, without ever losing sight of her confidence that she'll get out and on with her life.

One striking and yet invisible virtue of Lady Bird is that, despite its being obviously autobiographical, across two viewings I never once thought of Ronan as a stand-in for Gerwig. Other than for the blondish hair, they don't look alike, but it's more that their bearing and style are so different. With Gerwig, I'm always holding my breath for her to do something charmingly goofy or enchantingly antic, and I rarely have to inhale in between; she's a rare contemporary reminder of the likes of Carole Lombard or Lucille Ball. A Lady Bird starring a 20-year-old Gerwig would have been a very different film.

Ronan is clearly a serious actress of a high order and perhaps not prone, by nature, to be self-effacing, to emphasize the comic. Rather, her performance contains the multitudes, the many fleeting moods and charged emotions of adolescence on the brink of independence. The cusp between teenage immaturity and aborning adulthood has rarely been so shimmeringly caught.