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Saoirse Ronan negotiates Catholic school in California in "Lady Bird."

The first time I was blown away by Saoirse Ronan, it wasn’t by her performance in Atonement, which earned her her first Oscar nomination at the age of 13. No, it was six months after that, when I caught up to a straight-to-DVD comedy called I Could Never Be Your Woman. Seeing her steal that movie clean away from Michelle Pfeiffer and Paul Rudd as a Hollywood kid dancing around in her room to Britney Spears songs, I thought, “We’ve really got something here.” Ronan is now 23 and coming off her second Oscar nomination for Brooklyn, and she blows through the teen film Lady Bird with gale force.

She does not play Lyndon Johnson’s wife, but rather Christine McPherson, a 17-year-old heading into her senior year at an all-girls Catholic high school in Sacramento in the fall of 2002. Nicknaming herself “Lady Bird,” she’s bored to tears by unglamorous central California and wants nothing more than to go to college in New York, as far away from her family as possible. This especially applies to her mom (Laurie Metcalf), who devotes all her energy to keeping Lady Bird in state, saying that the financially strapped family can’t afford an expensive college and that Lady Bird probably can’t get into those schools anyway.

Not since Juno have we had a teenage heroine so comfortable in her own skin, so bursting with energy. Lady Bird does everything to be the star of her school, dying her hair pink, running a yearly long-shot campaign for class president, trying out for the school musical with a Broadway-ready version of Stephen Sondheim, and causing a scene at an anti-abortion assembly that gets her a suspension. The first time we see Lady Bird, she’s getting into a fight with her mom (Laurie Metcalf) during a car trip that becomes so heated that the girl jumps out of the moving car. This is a great character.

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I do wish she had a bit of a stronger story to be in. This is the solo directing debut by Greta Gerwig, who co-directed Nights and Weekends back in 2008 with Joe Swanberg and has co-authored a number of scripts. She also shares her heroine’s Catholic school background and Sacramento childhood. Like Mike Leigh or the “mumblecore” filmmakers whom she came up with, she deliberately leaves ends dangling loose to suggest the shaggy stop-and-start rhythms of real life, closely observing the strictures of a family in financially straitened circumstances and the details of Catholic school life. (As a product of an all-boys Catholic school myself, I can vouch for the latter.) I could have used some more humor, though Gerwig comes up with a memorably funny bit when Lady Bird reacts to betrayal by her first boyfriend (Lucas Hedges from Manchester by the Sea) by lying down on a car hood and singing along tearfully to Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me,” an uncool song even back in 2002. The movie centers around Lady Bird’s complicated relationship with her mom, who seems to genuinely want to mother her daughter but also seems mystified by who she is. It comes to a head during a farewell scene when Lady Bird goes off to college, and I wanted the whole to be more piercing.

Good thing Ronan flawlessly delivers Lady Bird’s final speech, a phone message to her mom trying to reconcile her complicated love for her mom and her hometown. The young Irish actress seizes this role of a fearless girl who throws herself into everything new, including a roundly underwhelming first sexual experience, while shading in Lady Bird’s disappointing neglect of her best friend (Beanie Feldstein) while attempting to suck up to the school’s popular girl (Odeya Rush). Lady Bird may fall short of being one of the all-time great high school movies, but Saoirse Ronan makes it enthralling at all times.

Lady Bird

Starring Saoirse Ronan. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig. Rated R.

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