Early in Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age charmer “Lady Bird,” eponymous leading lady Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is asked by a teacher if her preferred nickname is actually her given name (it is, of course, not). Chin set, shoulders back, she declares, “I gave it to myself. It’s given to me by me.” That’s Lady Bird’s entire ethos in a nutshell.
Gerwig’s film – her solo directorial debut, which she also wrote – follows Lady Bird through her senior year at the insular Immaculate Heart High School, a private Catholic institution in the suburbs of Sacramento that doesn’t really suit her sensibilities. As Lady Bird, Ronan is all energy and spirit and angst, an eye-rolling teen on the cusp of something new, something more, just something else. She doesn’t have it all figured out, and she doesn’t have to.
“She was this girl who was going to do something, and she was going to be something, but she didn’t know quite what she was going to do and who she was going to be,” Ronan told IndieWire of her first impression of the character. “I like that we found her at this in-between moment, while she was figuring it all out. She hadn’t necessarily arrived anywhere yet, she was just in between these big moments.”
Tasked with a character as refreshingly winsome – a walking, talking embodiment of millennial ennui – the Oscar-nominated actress never verges into cheap tricks or bad tropes. Her Lady Bird is very real, deeply relatable, and always engaging. She’s every surly teen, but she’s also every person who’s ever been a surly teen (you know, most of us). She’s even Ronan. And now that the movie’s making waves at the specialty box office, coasting into awards season with plenty of momentum, Lady Bird’s appeal will only continue to grow.
Although Gerwig has been somewhat cagey on the precise parallels between Lady Bird’s life and her own teenage experience (at a recent New York Film Festival press conference, the filmmaker said, “Nothing in the movie literally happened in my life, but it has a core of truth that resonates with what I know”), there’s little doubt that it’s a story close to her heart.
Still, Ronan brought her own flair to the role. “It’s like our child that we’ve birthed together,” she said with a laugh. “Lady Bird sort of took on this life of her own. She came from us, but sort of became this other thing altogether. I guess it was just two people who came together who really wanted to work together and really identified with the script.”
Gerwig had been working on what would become “Lady Bird” for over two years when she first sent the script to Ronan, which the actress instantly loved.
“The script itself had a real clean, clear pace to it. It had a real heartbeat,” Ronan said. “It was just very witty and very touching at the same time, and it didn’t feel like she was playing for laughs. Everything was very sincere. And like something you would actually say, every second line, you could hear yourself saying it.”
The pair Skyped to chat about the project; Ronan called it “the giddiest Skype meeting I’ve ever had. It was not all business at all. There was no business talk. I felt like we both had the need to tell each other so much already.”
In September of 2015, Ronan and Gerwig met in person at the Toronto International Film Festival, where Ronan was bowing her other big coming-of-age film, “Brooklyn,” which ultimately earned her a second Oscar nod. The pair set about reading the script together, by way of makeshift audition that was seems mostly just like a formality at that point.
“We read through the whole thing, and I did Lady Bird’s part and she did everyone else’s parts,” Ronan said. “It just felt like you’d met one of those people that you really wanted to spend time with and really wanted to explore a piece of work with.”
“A Once in a Blue Moon Thing”
By the time they started shooting in August of 2016 – mostly in Sacramento, naturally enough – it was clear to Ronan that the connection she was feeling to Lady Bird was something special.
“You could kind of see the effect it was having on people when were shooting it, because the crew even would be so touched by particular scene that we’d do,” the actress remembered. “If it was the prom or a song that would play or something that Beanie [Feldstein] and I did in a scene as two best friends just fucking about, I remember watching so many people on set being really effected by it. They’d go, ‘Oh, that’s me! I totally did that!'”
Ronan describes both “Brooklyn” and “Lady Bird” as “a once-in-a-blue-moon thing” (sometimes, lightning does strike twice). It’s no surprise that both “Brooklyn” and “Lady Bird” stand out in Ronan’s mind.
The actress has been working on the big screen since the age of 12, when she was cast in Joe Wright’s “Atonement” (which earned Ronan her first Oscar nod), but she’s managed to navigate the kid-actor years seemingly without a hitch. Films like “Brooklyn” and “Lady Bird” chronicle young women on the verge of making their own destinies, breaking free, finding themselves, just as Ronan is doing the same in her own life.
Both films are also responsible for some of her best reviews yet. If Ronan snags an Oscar nomination for her work in “Lady Bird,” she’ll just miss out on becoming the youngest actress to earn three nominations. (It’s a very close call – she’ll be 23 at the time of nominations, just like the current record holder, Jennifer Lawrence, who also earned her third nomination at 23, though her slightly later birthday gives the “Silver Linings Playbook” winner the edge by just four months.)
But Ronan may already have her reward in creating a character that resonates for an entire generation.
“One day, it just hit me: why is it she calls herself Lady Bird? And I think it’s really brilliant, that I just totally accepted it,” she said. “Apart from her mother, everyone accepts that’s what she calls herself, in the same way that I was doing it, too. At no point did anyone come up to me on set and say, ‘So why do you think she calls herself Lady Bird?’ We all seemed to just accept this is who this person is.”
She continued, “She’s the master of her own journey. It’s so cool to watch someone like that in a film, especially a girl. I hope that young girls and boys can go see it and think, ‘Oh, that’s really cool, she hasn’t figured it out, but she’s definitely going to do something.'”
“Lady Bird” is currently in limited release and will continue to expand throughout the month of November.