“You wrote about Sacramento like you love it.”
“I just pay attention.”
“Isn’t it the same thing?”
Like her writer, Lady Bird (played by the talented Saoirse Ronan) is perceptive, sometimes without even realising it — it takes a teacher to show her that her writing reflects what she really feels. Gerwig’s writing process was similarly attentive, even laborious, but all in the name of producing the best possible dialogue, settings and staging of scenes. “I don’t know how people write scripts in 19 days,” she says in an interview, “It takes me at least a year and a half.”
And here this painstaking process pays off. Lady Bird is an engrossing, touching film, just as much a paean to adolescence and growing up as it is an indie slice of Sacramento life. As the opening quote from Joan Didion reads, ‘Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.’ And this seems to be the mantra adopted by Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson: a seventeen-year-old who is trying to get to grips with her identity, her inherent narcissism and her family’s oddities.
The reason for her nickname is not given. All we know is that it is self-appointed — although some have stated that it is unlikely that she would follow the sympathies of Claudia “Lady Bird” Johnson, President Johnson’s wife. Rather, we find this Lady Bird ensconced in the Sacred Heart Catholic School, a caged free spirit. She yearns for more from her life and dreams of what she might do, and to where she might ‘fly away home’.
The film steers clear of making fun of religious institutions — Gerwig says that’s been done enough already — instead treating it with fondness, and using it as a backdrop to the performer, the centrepiece. “I want to live through something” she tells her mother (Laurie Metcalf). “Aren’t you?” she replies.
It’s a rare film that is both very humorous and that leaves you with a lot to think about. Often, there are sudden changes in tone: Lady Bird and her mother might be arguing one minute and cooing over a beautiful dress the next. It’s just the kind of portrait that offers a bullseye shot of life between a mother and teenage daughter, and it is masterfully told.
Metcalf, as the mother, was superb. She realises that they are desperately poor, living ‘on the wrong side of the tracks’, and is often possessive and obsessive with her daughter — but everything she does is from a place of love. And Lady Bird is acutely aware of this, despite their daily altercations. She defends her mum to a friend, simply, honestly, as if she knows who (and whose) she is: “She’s not scary. She’s warm. She has a very big heart.”
A split-screen montage between Lady Bird and her mother shows that they are not so different after all. Yet they can never have a true conversation – it’s always over the phone, through changing room walls, or even blocked by a cold silence when washing dishes. Many spectators will find this very real and very moving, since the gap between teenagers and their parents is so difficult to bridge. We feel each character’s frustrations and their desire to communicate, even when it is not fully realised between them.
On one level, it’s a study of family life, but on another, it’s an examination of high school, growing up, and learning to think beyond oneself. At the age of seventeen, everything is a drama, and Lady Bird seems to embody this, screaming in the middle of the street when things are going well. One of her teachers recognises that she has a ‘performative streak’, enlisting her in amateur dramatics. But for all her flair she also has the power to draw people in from the fringes — consider her best friend Julie (the infinitely loveable Beanie Feldstein), whose own issues can only be soothed by a genuine friendship. In this way, Lady Bird and her mother — an overworked nurse, listening to patients who have no-one else to go to — are not so dissimilar.
The message of this film seems to be that appearances are deceptive. It may seem that Lady Bird wants to be free of Sacramento, but she loves it dearly. The relationships she craves may not be as rewarding as initially thought. And even the people with the least to say, through small encounters, reveal that they are human beings too. Lady Bird shares a cigarette with her sister-in-law; it’s a poignant moment that shows us that appearance isn’t everything. Her relationship to her city, her family, friends and even her own identity are challenged and stretched, but often undercut with a subtle touch of the comic.
A review will hardly do justice to the complex layers of humour, pathos and wanderlust that make up Lady Bird. This is a truly special film, teasing out of the tangled web of family life a story of aching, warm nostalgia. At the end of the film, when the credits rolled, I heard someone behind me crying quietly— and I wonder how many others felt the same but didn’t admit it out loud.