The inspiration behind Saoirse Ronan’s performance in ‘Lady Bird’
(Credit: Netflix)


The inspiration behind Saoirse Ronan's performance in 'Lady Bird'

Now featured on the shelves of Netflix, Lady Bird is rightly considered one of the modern masterpieces. Much of that can now be attributed to the performance of Saoirse Ronan.

Over the past few decades, female-led coming-of-age movies have become much more commonplace, allowing for complex depictions of an otherwise underrepresented group who have rarely been taken seriously in cinema. For decades, the most prominent coming-of-age tales have centred around young boys – from The 400 Blows to The Graduate and Stand By Me. However, we are now in an era in which female-directed movies about girlhood are increasingly finding a place on the big screen, from Fish Tank to Mustang and Lady Bird.

Arriving as Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, the actor-turned-filmmaker released Lady Bird in 2017 to critical acclaim. The film stars Saoirse Ronan as the titular character, a teenage girl living in suburban Sacramento, preparing to move to college after the summer. She attends a Catholic high school with her best friend Julie, where she falls for multiple boys, including Lucas Hedges’ Danny and Timothée Chalamet’s Kyle. Over the course of the film, Lady Bird must deal with first loves, first times, friend fallouts and college applications. Yet, the most enduring quality of Gerwig’s movie is the tumultuous mother-daughter relationship depicted between Lady Bird and Laurie Metcalf’s Marion. 

Ronan perfectly encapsulates the essence of being a flawed teenage girl, both selfish and loving, eager to escape the monotony of suburbia and “go where culture is!” while harnessing a deep, unrealised love for her hometown. She is multitudinous and complex, and Ronan does a fantastic job at conveying a character that is both loveable and infuriating. The character’s very naming of herself as ‘Lady Bird’ instead of going by her given moniker, Christine, highlights her desire to be different, to separate herself from the crowd and rid herself of something chosen by her mother. Yet, it soon becomes apparent that Lady Bird wants nothing more than to fit in with her richer peers, who she feels isolated from due to her financially struggling family. She wants to be a part of the ‘cool’ crowd and date the popular heartthrob, Kyle. However, this desire morphs into selfishness and dishonesty, with Lady Bird only hurting those closest to her, such as her friend, Julie, whom she abandons for a large part of the film.

To portray such a multi-layered character, Ronan undoubtedly draws from her previous adolescent frustrations and anxieties, painting a picture of someone that almost every teenage girl and young woman can relate to in some way or another. Ronan highlights how quickly confidence can turn into anxiety through the drop of a smile or a sudden comedic scream. She excellently contrasts moments of pure childlike fascination and naivety with the damning realisation that everyone else around her has their own struggles, such as her depressed father or her closeted boyfriend Kyle. As the film progresses, Lady Bird comes to accept that the world does not revolve around her, as it can so often feel when you are young. She learns the true meaning of love – attention, and how her mother’s overbearing nature is a result of intense adoration and care for her only daughter. 

The prom dress shopping sequence is a perfect example of Ronan and Metcalf’s ability to bring a fraught parent-child relationship to life, demonstrating the dichotomy between growing up while still living under the roof of an adult caregiver, stuck between the precipe of childhood and adulthood. As Lady Bird tries on dresses, her mother stands outside the door, unsatisfied with her choices, until she dons a glittery pink number. As she steps out of the cubicle, Lady Bird declares, “I love it”, which comes after she complains that everything else makes her look fat, even declaring: “I wish I could get an eating disorder.” Yet, her mother simply asks, “Is it too pink?” Ronan excellently restrains her face and, saying nothing at all with words, walks back into the cubicle, where she eventually says, “Why can’t you say I look nice?”

The scene culminates in Lady Bird telling her mother that she wishes she liked her, to which Marion replies, “Of course I love you”. When Lady Bird prompts her mother again, Marion can only say, “I want you to be the best version of yourself that you can be”. It’s a heartwrenching scene that suggests that Marion doesn’t actually like the way her daughter has turned out, yet she still feels an enormous love for her. Despite scenes in which they argue and explode at each other, this sequence feels the most important, and much of this is due to each actor’s carefully controlled and refined performances. 

At the end of the film, Lady Bird moves to New York, not before another tense exchange between her and Marion as she leaves for the airport. When she unpacks, Lady Bird finds unfinished letters from her mother that her father had stuffed into her bag. The letters detail Marion’s love for her daughter, wishing that the two could be friends. Eventually, Lady Bird calls her mother and leaves a voicemail to say thank you and to tell her that she loves her. It’s a tearjerking moment, propelled by Ronan’s reserved demeanour, which clearly hides swathes of emotions – regret, love, hopefulness, reflection, sadness. 

The beauty of Lady Bird resides in the attention to detail that Ronan uses to bring her protagonist to life. At once, Lady Bird is ambitious and uncertain, caring and rude, and Ronan moves between these states with precision. It could be easy to misinterpret Lady Bird as a bad person if not for Ronan’s tender portrayal of a girl stuck between independence and family, individualism and conformity, and the familiar and the unknown.