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The Six Best Supporting Characters in ‘Lady Bird’

Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf may be getting all of the awards attention, but "Lady Bird" had the deepest ensemble cast of the year.

Photo by Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24

“Lady Bird”

Photo by Merie Wallace, courtesy of A24

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about “Lady Bird” — a film with no shortage of remarkable things — is how Greta Gerwig manages to pack so much life into such a condensed stretch of time. A blisteringly paced 93 minutes that distills its heroine’s senior year of high school down to its greatest hits, this coming-of-age story somehow manages to make even its most peripheral characters feel like real people, their hopes and hardships continuing to exist long after they’ve flitted away from Lady Bird’s attention.

From Lady Bird’s parents, to the priest who runs her school’s drama program, to the pretentious douche who pops her cherry (and even to his cancer-stricken dad), you could imagine Gerwig devoting an entire movie to virtually any member of her cast. In fact, that generous sense of humanity is one of the biggest reasons why this movie works so well, as “Lady Bird” tempers its protagonist’s teenage egocentrism by allowing us to see what she can’t.

This is a story that’s told through a very particular lens; it’s not always the lens we would have chosen, but it’s the one that Gerwig gave us. It’s a good one. To Lady Bird, the world is only as wide as what she can see at any given moment, and she looks at it through a spotlight that shines on just one person at a time; the moment when she first sees Kyle playing with L’Enfance Nue (completely forgetting that Danny is standing right next to her) is so cringe-worthy because we all kinda lost our object permanence at that age. One of the great joys of this film is being reminded that everybody could be a bit narcissistic, but nobody grows up by themselves.

So while Saoirse Ronan has deservedly received most of the attention, her extraordinary and voracious performance in the titular role almost tends to obscure that “Lady Bird” boasts the deepest ensemble of this year’s Best Picture nominees. As a tribute to the smaller roles that make this movie possible — and a testament to how much Gerwig was able to create from so little — we’ve decided to celebrate its six best supporting characters (though we easily could have expanded this article to accommodate six more).

6. Sister Sarah-Joan (Lois Smith)

Best line: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”

Sister Sarah-Joan only has two real scenes, but the oldest and wisest of Lady Bird’s teachers sees her more clearly than anyone else. Played with unforced humanity by the great Lois Smith, Sister Sarah-Joan is the first person to note Lady Bird’s performative streak, and — unlike Lady Bird’s mom — she knows how to lead our heroine away from her weaknesses without couching her advice in a deep-seated sense of personal disappointment (“But math isn’t something you are terribly strong in?” she asks, the gentle uptick of her voice gracefully transforming a criticism into a rhetorical question).

Naturally, Lady Bird can’t let that kindness go unpunished, so she vandalizes Sister Sarah-Joan’s car. It’s a tough scene to watch, especially because we know how much Lady Bird likes her mentor, but the fallout makes it all worthwhile. Not only does Sister Sarah-Joan get to share her unexpected sense of humor, but — in just a single line of dialogue — she also delicately untangles Lady Bird’s complicated feelings about wanting to leave home. Maybe Lady Bird is her favorite student, or maybe Sister Sarah-Joan just makes all the girls feel that way because she’s come to learn the true value of paying attention to the people who need it.

5. Kyle Scheible (Timothée Chalamet)

Best line: “You’re gonna have so much unspecial sex in your life.”

First of all, can we talk about how perfectly all the characters are named in this movie? He’s not just Kyle, he’s Kyle Scheible. Those last two syllables really tell you everything you need to know. “Scheible” isn’t a teen heartthrob; “Scheible” is the kind of shorthand that a writer might use to designate the resident dork in a bad workplace sitcom. And maybe that’s who Kyle will grow up to become (although some bone structures just don’t belong in a cubicle), but for now he’s just Kyle, the dreamy bassist who’s trying way too hard to keep sleepwalking through senior year.

Everything about Kyle is funny, because everything about Kyle feels true. We all knew that pretentious kid with a prefab personality, the kind who still looked pretty even when his head was completely up his ass. He was definitely the first guy who all of your friends had sex with. And while it would have been so easy for this hella tight, very baller character to slip into parody (especially because one of his main jobs is to remind us that it’s 2003), Timothée Chalamet roots him in something real. He finds the perfect middle ground between posturing and innocence, allowing us to laugh at Kyle without ever writing him off as a joke.

And while his last name might seem like the only sincere thing about him, Lady Bird eventually discovers otherwise when she sees his terminally ill father dying in the living room. Gerwig waits until just after we’ve judged the character before she flips the script, chipping away at this wannabe anarchist until he’s just a little boy who’s trying to completely inure himself to his emotions before it’s too late.

4. Father Leviatch (Stephen McKinley Henderson)

Best Line: “They didn’t understand it.”

In Gerwig’s script, this is the only description she offers of Father Leviatch: “There is something funny and depressed about him.” And, in truth, that’s probably all that his students ever notice about the boisterous guy who directs the school plays. Teachers tend not to invite a lot of curiosity about themselves; they’re always performing, trying to engage young minds while deflecting attention away from the man behind the curtain. But while Lady Bird might not pick up on the vague pain that Father Leviatch is putting down, Gerwig makes sure that we’re sharply attuned to it.

We don’t really learn the particulars of his sadness (there are rumors, but you know how those things take on a life of their own), but we don’t have to — whatever darkness he’s carrying with him, he can’t just take it off when he puts his collar on. He’s alone, and suffering through some kind of loss, and his cross to bear is that he can’t allow his students to see that. Being a teacher often means checking your humanity at the door, but Leviatch has more cracks than he knows how to conceal. The brilliant Stephen Henderson gives us a good look at every one of them, packing an entire melodrama’s worth of raw emotion into just the way he begs Lady Bird’s mom not to tell her daughter how fragile he is. The guy is on screen for maybe 90 seconds, and we’ve been thinking about him for almost six months.

3. Julie Steffans (Beanie Feldstein)

Best Line: “Let’s be honest, I’ve had a dress for months. It’s purple and you’re really gonna like it.”

Elevating the best friend archetype into an art form, Julie Steffans is so much more than just another sidekick. For one thing, Beanie Feldstein’s brilliant performance ensures that the character doesn’t only exist in Lady Bird’s shadow. She’s so careful about what she allows to bubble up to the surface — watch how coyly she crushes on her teacher, or the generosity with which she allows her BFF to be the center of attention. It’s devastatingly poignant to see Julie sneak a rare moment of self-pity into the scene where she learns that she’s been cast against Lady Bird’s crush in the school play. “It’s probably my only shot at that, you know?”

Lady Bird is too busy thinking about herself to respond, but Julie forgives her for that. Not because she’s so desperate for friendship that she allows herself to be run over (well, not only because of that), but also because she has the perspective to see growing pains for what they are, and to judge people for their best selves instead of for their worst moments.

2. Larry McPherson (Tracy Letts)

Best Line: “Oh fuck.”

A Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright whose roles in films like “Indignation” and “The Lovers” have made him as indispensable to the screen as he is to the stage, Tracy Letts plays Lady Bird’s dad as a dignified man who’s caught between two indomitable women. Cowed into playing the good cop, Letts’ character is left to mediate the volatile relationship between his frazzled wife and their free-spirited teenager daughter — by the time the movie begins, that job is the only one he has left.

The character is defined by his quiet desperation (we’re told that he’s been living with depression for years), and it’s clear that he’s deeply hurt by his inability to provide for his family. At the same time, there’s something so moving about how delicately he intervenes, always doing what he can to bridge the gap between his wife and daughter and show them how much they love each other.

Sometimes, that responsibility is played for sweetness (the scene where he brings Lady Bird a cupcake on her birthday is a heartbreaker). Other times, it’s tweaked for comic relief (his “Oh, fuck” at the dinner table after graduation might be the line delivery of the year). In either case, and in all the nebulous spaces in between, Letts creates the embodiment of a man who loves women too much to let them hate each other.

1. Marion McPherson (Laurie Metcalf)

Best Line: “I want you to be the very best version of yourself that you can be.”

Almost a co-lead, Marion McPherson has become a magnificent synecdoche for the entire supporting cast of “Lady Bird” (at least as far as awards season is concerned). She’s one of the best and most well-rounded movie moms ever, which is especially impressive considering that she spends most of her time off-screen pulling double shifts at the hospital just to keep her family from falling apart. Laurie Metcalf gloriously refuses to sand off any of Marion’s edges, and it’s so powerful and rewarding to watch the hope she harbors for her daughter clash against the needs she keeps to herself. At the same time, it’s remarkable to see how believably Metcalf is able to throw us into this story in media res, like she and Saoirse Ronan have been playing these parts all their lives.

Their first scene together conveys everything that we’ll need to know for the 90 minutes to come: The year is 2002, Lady Bird feels like she’s outgrown her home town, Marion worries that she hasn’t given her daughter the life she dreams of, and the constant specter of money (or the lack thereof) is seeping into the raw sewage of love and guilt and resentment that runs between them. Lady Bird and her mom might not see eye-to-eye, but this exchange is all it takes for us to understand their respective points of view. It makes it possible for us to love them both, to share these characters’ hopes for themselves even when they use them to hurt one another.

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