Last time I saw Saoirse Ronan on screen she was playing a young Irishwoman of marriageable age in the delightful Brooklyn. Two years later here she is in Lady Bird playing a troubled adolescent, and it’s a tribute to how good an actress she is (she got an Oscar nomination) that she is entirely plausible as a teenage girl facing the traditional pitfalls of youth: the craving for popularity and acceptance, the dangers of peer pressure, the yearning for romance, the minefield of sexuality, the dawning awareness that one’s parents are fallible and possibly unreliable and the conviction that one is terminally misunderstood.
It reminded me of The Getting of Wisdom, Henry Handel Richardson’s semi-autobiographical account of her girlhood at a boarding school in early twentieth century Victoria, and one of my favourite books of all time.
Lady Bird is set in the (almost) present, in small-town America, but despite the different cultures and the 100 years separating them, the two stories have much in common.
For instance, both girls have a problem with their given names. Young Christine so dislikes hers that she demands to be known hereafter as Lady Bird, letting herself in for inevitable disappointment and angst when the universe – read parents and teachers – don’t immediately go along with her whim.
In the earlier story, our heroine is comprehensively humiliated when her classmates learn that her full name is ‘Laura Tweedle Rambotham’ and fall about laughing at her expense. Her later efforts to gain acceptance among her peer group by inventing a fantasy romance with a young clergyman fancied by all the girls leads to her downfall when her lie is exposed. The parallel in the modern story is Lady Bird’s excruciating project to get in with the cool crowd at school, jeopardizing her relationship with the true friend who is decidedly not cool.
Saoirse Ronan plays Lady Bird with just the right mix of vulnerability and cocky teenage attitude. Like all good coming-of-age stories, this one serves as a salutary reminder to young ‘uns that they don’t always know everything and that there’s a lot to be said for age and experience when it comes to the getting of wisdom.
This review was first published on Facebook in March 2018