What do you remember about growing up? Was your tenure in high school characterized by grandiose, dramatic blowups and public betrayals, the sort you’ll see in, say, Riverdale? Or was it marked by subtler moments of inner tumult—smoldering angst rather than a bleeding heart? The version of teenage life shown in most works about high school trends towards the saccharine, but that’s not really what being a 17-year-old feels like. To be a high schooler is to be bored and adrift. Lady Bird is a film that works off that assumption.
Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut tells the story of titular character Lady Bird (née Christine McPherson) as she tries to extract herself from the dreary confines of Sacramento to somewhere she sees as real and worth a damn, a mythical Small East Coast Liberal Arts School, long the endpoint for a very specific sort of California teenage wanderlust.
***SPOILERS TO FOLLOW***
She doesn’t really know what the East Coast is like, of course, but she knows that it’s not Sacramento, which to her is flat, culturally dry, and also the place where her overbearing mother unsympathetically lords over her. There are futile romances, intergenerational headbutting contests, and tempestuous friendships, like there are with any movie about a high schooler. Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird tumbles into a montage-worthy cutesy romance just as soon as she falls out of it, for reasons that, in less able hands, would have been come across as trite. The defining relationship in the movie is between Lady Bird and her mother Marion (played by Laurie Metcalf), and even though they spend the entire movie with their knives out, you never doubt that they care about each other deeply. Any time you think the movie will veer into an expected cul-de-sac, it strays from the magnetic north of teen movie cliche. The result is hyperrealistic, even in its most obvious comedic moments (which are many, as this movie’s lived-in sarcastic posturing makes everything seem funny).
But don’t mistake its nuance for a lack of muscle; what makes it such an emotional bruiser is its unsparing honesty. I grew up in a different part of Sacramento, a few years later, and I’m not a young woman, but the movie captured what I felt like growing up with eerie accuracy. I expected more of a coming-of-age comedy; I did not expect the most accurate encapsulation of high school life in the mid-2000's.
Of course, setting one any movie in Sacramento is fairly odd, since it’s thoroughly unglamorous. The best thing about Sacramento, per the old refrain, is that it’s two hours from everything. California’s a halfpipe and Sacramento is the flat part in the middle, a featureless city between better places. There is a lot to like about the place, but those aspects (decent public schools, all the trees, an oversized middle class thanks to state jobs, the abundance of good restaurants) didn’t excite me when I was a teen and didn’t excite Lady Bird. Why would they? That’s adult shit. Lady Bird simultaneously shows how something that’s charming to one generation is, to another generation, something to be escaped from. The trick is contrast. What is a soothing moment of respite for Marion is at the same time an example of Sacramento’s boorishness to Lady Bird.
People from Sacramento have a wry sense of self-deprecating pride about the city, and Lady Bird hits the balance just right. It’s not exactly a love letter to the Central Valley, as the movie starts off with a famed Joan Didion quote about how boring Sacramento is and operates off the premise that Sacramento is a place to be escaped from. And yet people love the movie! Greta Gerwig is allowed to make fun of Sacramento because she gets it. For two weeks, people would turn to me and remark, “You know, that Lady Bird movie is set in Sacramento.” I saw it in Sacramento in a sold-out Tower Theatre (the same one that shows up in Lady Bird) and whenever anyone so much as said the word “Sacramento,” my fellow moviegoers would fawn and coo, even if Lady Bird was talking shit. Gerwig’s movie is a true portrayal of Sacramento ennui, which even the most enthusiastic Sacramento booster would have to acknowledge, and, just like Lady Bird, she developed a true (if complicated) admiration for the city. Her movie is a love letter disguised as a groan.
I felt the same suffocation that Lady Bird felt, though thankfully, not in a Catholic school. Lady Bird’s Immaculate Heart is a stand-in for the real-life St. Francis. The school’s nuns come off not as the taciturn disciplinarians you see in any other Catholic school movie, but rather real people with feelings and desires. When Lady Bird plays a prank on one sister, she laughs it off and commends her for her humor. Rather, the real people to truly be wary of are the rich kids.
The villains of many a teen movie are the cruel popular kids, though Gerwig smartly inverts that trope by making them the only ones who don’t seem bored and casting that as an indictment of their character. It’s a clever way to skewer them, as it makes them seem kind of dumb. When, say, roguish dumbass Kyle performatively smokes cigarettes and reads A People’s History Of The United States, you get the sense that he thinks this is what life should be like. Immaculate Heart’s resident queen bee, Jenna, lives in the rich (and terrible) suburb of Granite Bay and when she briefly befriends Lady Bird, she can’t even conceive of a desire to want to leave Sacramento.
As Splinter noted, Lady Bird is a rare teen movie about the exhaustion and churn of growing up poor, and while Lady Bird herself is acutely aware of her status at all times, the Jennas and Kyles of the world are too coddled not to want more or posture about not wanting to “participate in the economy” from the security of a three-story Fab 40s mansion. You feel Lady Bird’s struggles that much more acutely because she wants something that Sacramento’s upper class takes for granted.
Lady Bird does eventually leave Sacramento, and though all parties involved want something close to reconciliation, it never comes. Her best friend Julianne will not go to college. Her father does not find a job. Marion never stops clenching her heart muscles long enough to express herself. It’s not a happy ending, though it is an honest one. That’s what real life is like: The things you yearn for are never exactly what you expect and the place you come from will always be a part of you. After spending the movie butting heads with Marion, it was moving to hear Lady Bird wax rhapsodic about the beauty of driving in Sacramento and feeling the same comfort her mother felt. Everyone has to grow up, and it’s always hard, but Lady Bird’s point is that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood.