REVIEW / DRAMA-COMEDY
LADY BIRD (M18)
96 minutes/Opens today/4 stars
The story: Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a high-schooler who dreams of leaving home for college to escape her controlling mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), and what she considers the cultural desert of Sacramento, California. In the meantime, she and best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) have to learn about femininity, boys and sex, the meaning of friendship and living with parents who are flawed human beings.
At one point, Lady Bird's father Larry (the understatedly wonderful Tracy Letts) tells her, with a resigned sigh and more than a hint of admiration, that her mother is a "very strong woman".
That label applies as much to Christine (Ronan) as it does her mother, but thanks to her youthful lack of self-awareness, the teenager never once considers that her combative ways have been handed down to her by the same person she fights with the most.
Actress turned writer-director Greta Gerwig has turned out a funny, engaging picture driven by the twin poles of Christine and Marion (Metcalf).
That pairing has helped the film earn five Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director. Ronan and Metcalf are also in the running for the Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress awards respectively.
There have been other good coming-of-age stories with girl protagonists - The Edge Of Seventeen (2016) and The Diary Of A Teenage Girl (2015) come to mind - but what sets this one apart is the compellingly drawn mother-daughter relationship.
When other films tend to not take parent-child fights seriously, sketching them out as bouts of sullenness and shouting, what sets this film apart is the quality, rather than the quantity, of the shouting matches.
Gerwig's battle-hardened foes eviscerate each other with surgical precision and like the hapless dad Larry, the audience can only watch and wait for blood to be drawn.
But it is not all high drama.
Christine has to define the boundaries of her growing adult personality by her interactions with the nuns and brothers at the Catholic school and make overtures to the popular, pretty girls.
Gerwig never lets Christine's insecurities define her, nor grant her adorable quirks -she is a social bulldozer with greasy skin, not above lying to get what she wants, traits which land her in awkward moments.
These adventures in growing up would be interesting but shallow if not for how the audience knows who Lady Bird is: A product of the prickly, volatile relationship that nurtures her, but at the same time pummels her self-esteem into the ground.