Ever since I watched her host Saturday Night Live, Saoirse Ronan has caught my attention. I recognized her from her early work in The Lovely Bones but hadn’t explored her most recent works yet. Two of my favorite performances from her so far include John Crowley’s Brooklyn and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Both received positive reviews for their thoughtful depictions of tough yet vulnerable female protagonists. In an upcoming adaptation of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, Ronan will depict another smart, complicated female lead: the introverted, cautious violinist Florence. Now that I’m more familiar with her body of work, I’m excited to see how she brings this complicated character to life.
As I mentioned above, two of my favorite films that star Ronan are Brooklyn and Lady Bird. They’re vastly different films, one taking place in early twentieth century Brooklyn and the other in Sacramento at the cusp of the new millennium. But there are many similarities between them as well, which might be why I gravitate towards them. Each film features a strong female main character. They’re strong in different ways. Brooklyn’s Eilis is powerful in her controlled, deliberate ways whereas the titular character in Lady Bird brightens the film with her verve and naïve petulance. Both movies include complicated mother-daughter relationships and that sense of obligation that daughters feel towards their mothers. They’re fiercely hopeful coming-of-age films that guide audiences through complicated female perspectives.
Brooklyn caught me by surprise since I’m not necessarily a historical drama fan. It’s a story about diaspora, a story about how to survive as an immigrant. It tells the journey of a young woman named Eilis who lives in a small part of Ireland. Eilis goes to America for better life prospects, leaving behind her sister and mother. She’s struck by an aching sense of homesickness but also a desire for adventure as she lives in a boarding house full of young girls like herself. Eilis thrives in her new job, falls in love with a young Italian man, and even attends night classes as she navigates American society.
Brooklyn looks beautiful. Cinematographer Yves Bélanger use of extreme wide shots lends the film a cinematic feel, drawing in the audience with how vulnerable his characters look against their environments. The color grading is gorgeous. The beach scenes are deeply saturated, with picturesque azure blue skies and vibrant green grass. Eilis wears bright colors, and low camera angles fashion her as the fearless, empowered heroine of the story. There are a certain stylishness and nostalgia that echo Wes Anderson’s most famous works.
Yes, Brooklyn is cinematically breathtaking but we still get strong characterization. Eilis possesses this strong-headed guilelessness that’s reminiscent of Anne Shirley from L.M. Montgomery’s beloved children’s classic Anne of Green Gables. Ronan’s complex performance cuts deep. You feel her sense of anguish when she’s leaving for America, her lightheartedness when she’s with Tony, and her nervousness when she’s back in Ireland following a family tragedy. I also appreciated the performances from Emory Cohen and Domhnall Gleeson, who respectively play her Italian American and Irish love interests. There’s an understated sweetness to Cohen’s performance that makes you root for his character Tony. On the other hand, there’s a haughtiness to Gleeson that makes you enticed by his spoiled, smug bad boy character Jim. I do have to admit—I became a little lost in the third act with the introduction of Gleeson’s character but perhaps that was because Eilis herself felt lost at that point in the movie as well.
Watching Brooklyn feels like drinking a cup of cocoa on a crisp autumn day. The story is simple, yet there’s such a richness to the characters and a comfort to beautiful cinematography.
Lady Bird is a movie that depicts suburban malaise as much as it appreciates the quiet idyllic beauty of the suburbs. In her directorial debut, Gerwig fleshes out wonderfully flawed but lovable characters within the McPherson’s slightly dysfunctional but loving family. No one’s quite perfect. Yet you can’t help but care about them. The movie guides the viewer to carefully listen to that beauty of the suburban humdrum. Within that humdrum, there’s this—as Timothée Chalamet puts it—comedic realism. It’s full of funny, witty dialogue without being too heavy-handed.
Gerwig tells the story of a petulant teenage girl who yearns for a more culturally rich life than the one she leads in Sacramento. Given the name Christine at birth, she renames herself Lady Bird during her senior year at her private Catholic high school. It’s a crazy adventure of a year—she falls in love, loses touch with her best friend, falls in love again, and gets in a myriad of ups and downs with her mother. The romantic relationships in the film are mundane and non-consequential, which actually feels quite refreshing in a coming-of-age movie (where the main protagonist is a young woman, might I add). Lady Bird really focuses more on the main character’s complex relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), a sharp-tongued nurse who works relentlessly after her husband gets laid off. Mother and daughter are smart and stubborn. They care for each other as much as they’re prone to cutting each other emotionally.
Set in the 90s, the movie, shot on a digital Arri Alexa Mini, has the feel of a 90s teenage flick. It primarily consists of standard medium and medium close-up shots. It’s not as visually dramatic as Brooklyn but there’s a certain charm in its simplicity. Lady Bird is really driven by how the characters communicate with each other, through looks and dialogue. There’s a scene when Lady Bird and Marion are shopping for the former’s prom dress at a thrift shop. Marion tells Lady Bird that she wants her to be the very best version of herself that she can be. Lady Bird ruefully asks, “What if this is the best version?” Marion throws her a look, a gaze of subdued disappointment that carves a thousand cuts deep as much as it subtly suggests that she believes her daughter is capable of much more.
That’s not to say that we don’t get any striking cinematography. The film has a handful of beautifully framed moments, like Danny and Lady Bird frolicking on a date or Lady Bird and Julie meandering during their prom night. If you look closely at the movie, you also notice that it’s enveloped in this grainy sepia tone, which lends it a wholesome feel. The folksy, plaintive Jon Brion soundtrack also elevates the overall comforting feel of the movie.
There’s a reason why Lady Bird was a darling at the Golden Globes and Academy Awards this year. Gerwig creates astounding depth in her characters and loads each moment with emotional weight within a deceivingly mundane story. It won’t take you long to recognize that this film is nothing short of a labor of love.