So in defiance of all good breeding, let me get this part out of the way right now: Lady Bird has been ludicrously over-hyped. Everything it does good - which is a solid amount, to be sure - has been done just as good in earlier films about teenagers feeling like they're stuck in a world that doesn't know what to do with them. And everything it does bad - which is less, but still too much to overlook - is likewise pretty typical of low-budget indies of every stripe. It is, let's say, a 70th percentile coming-of-age movie. Which is surely better than being e.g. a 40th percentile coming of age movie, but come now.

If there's one exception to this, it's the title character, Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson herself. No, that's not quite right - Lady Bird is actually kind of a sucky character. But Saoirse Ronan, who plays Lady Bird, is truly magnificent, giving a spiky inner life to the part that's not quite the same as the one that writer-director Greta Gerwig provided for her. When the script says that Lady Bird should be tugging on our sympathy, Ronan is just as likely to make her hard and alienating; when the script wants her to be a witty quipster, Ronan probably would rather show the frantic work Lady Bird has to do in order to seem like she's not collapsing from stress and fear all the time, masking itself as a sort of snarky cool.

Ronan is but one member of a generally excellent ensemble cast, filling out the people who intersect with Lady Bird's unpleasant, difficult senior year at a Catholic high school in Sacramento, California. None of these people get all that much screentime, though the ones who get the most are her parents - nice guy dad Larry (Tracy Letts), flailing about unemployed, and unhappy, stern mom Marion (Laurie Metcalf) - and her socially awkward best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein, an extraordinary find). Other prominent figures are her adopted brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and his sullen girlfriend Shelly (Marielle Scott), cute theater boy Danny (Lucas Hedges), self-styled intellectual Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush).

Gerwig's script, which doesn't really present a story so much as it collates all the events of one trying year (2002-'03, which manifests nowhere else other than the soundtrack) into a chronological framework, gives all of these many people sharp little moments to quickly demonstrate who they are and why we must care about them, which leads to the film's most peculiar trait: Lady Bird, the person we spend the most time with, and whose concerns and hopes and disappointments make up the whole matter of the film, is usually the least-interesting person onscreen (it would be impossible to argue, even from contrarianism, that she's less interesting than Shelly). Maybe it's because what she's going through is mostly teen movie boilerplate, whereas some of the other characters have more interesting situations in their lives (I would happily watch a feature centered on either Danny or Julie); maybe Gerwig was too close to this quasi-autobiographical material. Maybe - probably, or even certainly - I've reached the point in my life where Marion's endless frustration at a husband who's only kind of trying to get his life back in order (the film does not sufficiently interrogate Larry's character flaws), and at a daughter who is always annoyed by the fact that the family is living paycheck-to-paycheck, when that already takes every molecule of stamina Marion has to offer, just seems like it's inherently more interesting and emotionally resonant than anything that a 17-year-old could possibly experience. God knows, at any rate, that however much Marion the film has, it needs more: there is absolutely nothing here better than the constant fluctuation in tension between mother and daughter, and Metcalf is the only person in the cast doing better work than Ronan. Every minute that's not exploring the wiry battle of wills between the two women is a moment that feels at least a little bit wasted.

Anyway, Ronan's precision in delivering Gerwig's lines, from the wittiest to the most flat-footed (as good a point to admit this as anywhere: I really don't care for Gerwig's sense of humor, and haven't since her screenwriting debut in her first lead role, in the godawful 2007 mumblecore indie Hannah Takes the Stairs), and her carefully managed control of Lady Bird's emotions even when Lady Bird herself is helpless to control them, does a whole lot to cover up the script's various shortcomings. And, needless to say, it makes the script's strengths pop. Lady Bird is largely episodic, and like any such narrative, some parts are stronger than others; other than the blanket statement that any scene with both Ronan and Metcalf is better than any other scene, it strikes me that the individual moments generally get more interesting as the film goes on, and Lady Bird's specific flavor of teenage ennui transforms from a general annoyance that she's not the rich urbanite she feels that she deserves to be, to a more finely-tuned disappointment in her own bad choices that she manifests in petty meanness towards her mother. It's not a perfect arc; there's very little in the film that I like less than its final sequence, which calls the mind the last and worst part of Boyhood, which sucks in mostly the same ways for mostly the same reasons. But overall, Lady Bird grows more cohesive and smarter as it moves along, which is for my tastes always a better option than falling about along the way.

It is, as has probably grown clear by now, a writer's and actor's movie; if I could manage to scrounge up even one interesting thing to say about the film's style, it would be that Sam Levy sure did manage to boost that grain pretty far. Basically, it's clear that for all the different places her career has taken her in the last decade, Gerwig learned everything she wanted to learn about movies as visual art from the ugly indies where she first cut her teeth. Though in some other ways, she escapes their pull: I was pleasantly surprised that, after a film's worth of romanticising New York as the promised land where all young artistic types must go, lest they end up soul-dead, the final sentiment is rather closer to admitting that there's a lot of truth and beauty to be found even living in a desolate wasteland like Sacramento.

It's neither an especially interesting film, nor a creative one, nor is it even the tiniest bit fresh in any way; but as this unexpected spurt of generosity towards Sacramento suggests, it's a tremendously nice and friendly movie, one that loves all of its characters and, what the hell, everybody else in the world, too. It's a completely pleasant movie, in a low-stakes, low-key way. For me, I could never love such a visually banal movie, but as a character piece it has more than its share of honest charms, and if the passion of its fans seems weirdly loud, it's hard to deny that it's an awfully lovable little bit of a thing.