'Lady Bird' flies out of common coming-of-age genre

Ronan and Feldstein practice their teenage disaffection

One of the many things that "Lady Bird", Greta Gerwig's debut as a writer-director, is so truthful about is how those closest to us can drive us so insane, and how those who exasperate us the most leave the biggest hole when they're gone. "Lady Bird" is a deeply accomplished debut, as much a love letter to Gerwig's hometown as it is to awkward adolescence. As a young woman at odds with the world, and herself, she illuminates the film.

"Lady Bird" follows her in her senior year of high school at an all-girls' Catholic school, where she discovers her love of musical theater, falls in and out of love (twice), deals with friends both loyal and fickle, and yearns to transcend her own limitations and get accepted by a college far, far away. Saoirse Ronan, as Lady Bird, catches the rhythm of the dialogue so that it sounds natural and impulsive rather than merely witty and stylized, blurting a line like "The only interesting thing about 2002 is that it's a palindrome" as though her mouth is racing to keep up with her brain.

Part Angela Chase, Lindsay Weir, Jo March and Anne Shirley, she is selfish and self-centered in that very particular way that teenage girls, who can't yet comprehend that this is a phase that might pass, can be. (That nostalgia will be doubled for those who also survived a Catholic education.) There are also satisfying emotional threads woven throughout, as Lady Bird grows up before our eyes - and while her mother grapples with the fear of the inevitable empty nest.

She also has a wonderful sense of rhythm, briskly moving through Lady Bird's senior year of high school, sometimes staging major scenes in a manner of seconds.

Her name is Christine, but she calls herself Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), and she would prefer that friends, relatives and acquaintances do the same. I believe that "Lady Bird" is so strong because it is very refreshing for a film, but is also so close to home.

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"Lady Bird" is a movie you just want to hug.

Around this mother-daughter relationship, Gerwig has arranged an array of resonant moments and small, ideal supporting performances, such as Lucas Hedges as Lady Bird's first boyfriend, or Lois Smith as a nun at her school, or Beanie Feldstein as her uncommonly loyal friend. She even lies about where she lives (which is literally on the wrong side of the tracks). Here, she nails every contradictory impulse in Lady Bird's bones, her desire to simultaneously both belong and to be unique. Gerwig herself was raised in Sacramento, and she dotes on the unremarkable surroundings her characters casually inhabit, while offering just enough period detail to set us in the 2002-03 school year without overdoing it. But Gerwig tells the story with such fresh wit and sophistication that it feels like she's reinventing the genre anew - giving fans of such films exactly what they want but not in the ways they're expecting. The larger Lady Bird ensemble is great in their own right, starting with Letts in his gentle turn as Catherine's easygoing (but quietly troubled) father Larry.

The "Lady Bird" in the title is one Christine McPherson, played by Ronan ("Atonement", "Brooklyn").

Ronan and Tony victor Metcalf are the obvious scene stealers, but the entire cast is excellent. It's hard to recall a film that so capably balances dark comedy with warm humanity.

Lady Bird is now playing in a limited US theatrical release and will expand to more markets over the forthcoming weeks.

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