The Joan Didion quote that prefaces Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird – “Anyone who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento” – carries a whiff of the ironic but affectionate familiarity that saturates the film. Didion’s declaration resonates with a line delivered later, by a nun at the Sacramento Catholic school attended by the film’s teenage protagonist. Christine McPherson – aka Lady Bird, played by the brilliant Saoirse Ronan – is sitting in the nun’s office discussing one of her college admission essays, when from behind her desk the wrinkled but radiant older woman compliments her on the warmth that her writing about Sacramento exudes. “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento,” says the nun. Unconvinced, Lady Bird replies, “I guess I pay attention.” The nun asks, “Don’t you think that maybe they’re the same thing?” Joan Didion, like Lady Bird, knew the city of Sacramento and apparently liked it enough to study it, to distinguish it from hackneyed ideas of the Gold Rush State. Lady Bird even disapprovingly calls Sacramento “the Midwest of California,” but by the end of the film it is clear the city’s Midwestern quality is not, in fact, a defect.
Mother-daughter relationship at heart of film
Set in the early 2000’s, Lady Bird follows McPherson in and around a Catholic high school called Immaculate Heart. Lady Bird’s mother, a harried, severe nurse, dedicates herself to tamping down Lady Bird’s penchant for drama, but her own innately dramatic personality only provokes her daughter to new extremes. One moment they are both weeping to an audio book reading of The Grapes of Wrath while driving; the next, Lady Bird is throwing herself out of the moving vehicle in response to an explosive maternal harangue from left field. Her mother insists Lady Bird keep her bedroom spotless, while Lady Bird prefers to write all over whiteboards that cover her walls. Mom wants Lady Bird to stay in California for college, whereas Lady Bird dreams about the hip, erudite world of small liberal arts schools on the East Coast.
Coming of age and into focus
The beauty and substance of Lady Bird emanate from the protagonist’s basically gentle personality, as it coalesces around her values, experiences and interests. Ironically (or not), Lady Bird herself comes to embrace a catholic [lowercase “c”] worldview: she explores contradiction, difference, ambiguity, and variety with pleasure and interest. It’s validating and exhilarating to watch her come of age as she comes into focus for herself.