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Movie review: 'Lady Bird' is engaging, Oscar-worthy

Lady Bird; 93 min; Rated R

It takes remarkable talent — both writing and acting — to find the sweet spot in a coming-of-age narrative. “Lady Bird” is such a film — replete with both.

Written by Greta Gerwig, the film is set in Sacramento (referred to as the “Midwest of California”) in the early 2000s. At its center is Christine McPherson, portrayed wonderfully by Saoirse Ronan, a high school senior reluctantly attending Immaculate Heart Catholic school (she refers to it as “Immaculate Fart”). She argued to attend Sac High, but her mother, Marion (captured brilliantly by Laurie Metcalf), who has heard of a stabbing in front of the school, insists on Christine attending a safer alternative, which Lady Bird (Christine’s adolescent moniker hence the title of the film) goes along with.

But the argument that she loses to her mother regarding where to go to school is but one of many love-hate moments that thread their way through the story. Marion is consistently passive-aggressive in her comments, as Christine points out, while she herself perfects a circling-the-drain talent for noncompliance.

“Lady Bird” is a series of spot-on vignettes, most of which take place at school where Christine is sorting out where she belongs and with whom. She tells a peer that she’s from the “wrong side of the tracks,” which proves to be literally true. And yet she tells another girl, Jenna (Odeya Rush), that she lives in a mini-mansion on the right side of the tracks.

Meanwhile, Christine struggles with her sexuality, issues of self-esteem and insecurity. In other words, she’s right where most teens are as they complete that painful but essential rite of passage toward adulthood. Each scene is perfectly balanced, one after the next, and each contributes to our understanding of Lady Bird/Christine.

What makes “Lady Bird” so compelling is that Ronan’s character never lapses into a cliché; rather, her reactions and precocity make her unique and always surprising. She has a sense of perpetual discontent and looming optimism always tempered by compassion.

Christine is never your standard, brooding teen. She is three-dimensional in all respects, given the strong performance of Ronan who is supported by an ensemble of actors — teens and adults — that deliver performances that are all engaging.

What is surprising about “Lady Bird” (cost to make: $10 million) is that it improbably transitioned from small art house theaters to more commercial venues, where it has been embraced and is now the recipient of five Oscar nominations, to include Best Picture.