Lady Bird feels like an apology – to a mother, to a best friend, to a brother, a brother’s girlfriend, a father, to teachers, a neighborhood, a town. The film, written and directed by Sacramento-native Greta Gerwig, follows a high school girl, Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronin, the millennial Meryl Streep) over the course of her senior year at a private, Catholic school in Sacramento. ‘Lady Bird’ wants “more” than her nearly idyllic life in “the midwest of California,” as she refers to Sacramento, though she’s not sure what that “more” is. It could be a Grapes of Wrath-like experience. It could be getting into a liberal arts college on the East coast.
Her life is nearly idyllic, because though she’s well-cared for by her parents, her family is firmly middle class, and, as this story takes place during the 2002/2003 school year, her father’s job is in jeopardy as the Central California tech bubble continues to deflate. ‘Lady Bird’ is abrasive with her mother who is abrasive with her as teenage girls and their mothers are apt to be as well, generally about the things ‘Lady Bird’ wants that the family cannot afford. Class distinctions between the “haves” and “have-nots” are central to the story, a distinction that is brought into sharper contrast for ‘Lady Bird’ because of the expensive private school she attends (on scholarship).
Very early in the film – indeed, it’s one of the first lines – ‘Lady Bird’ and her mother are listening to the end of Grapes of Wrath on an audiobook on their way home from a tour of colleges the girl might attend in California. They are driving through California’s central valley, the location the events at the end of that book largely take place. Reflecting on the book, ‘Lady Bird’ says, “I wish I could live through something.” Given it’s 2002 when the story begins, ‘Lady Bird’ will likely finish college in 2008, laden with thousands and thousands of dollars in student loan debt, right as the Great Recession descends on the country. Oh, you’re going to ‘live through something,” girl. Yes, you are.
This kind of knowing retrospect washes over all of Lady Bird. It’s this sense that makes it feel like an apology. “I didn’t know how good I had it. I didn’t appreciate it appropriately at the time.” Most of the film focuses squarely on ‘Lady Bird’ life, but there are key moments that deviate from her lived experience. Mostly these focus on her mother (Laurie Metcalf giving a prickly, heart-breaking performance). ‘Lady Bird’ the character thinks the worst of her mother. Lady Bird the movie thinks the best. The movie’s perspective wins out.
That’s not to suggest film film is a sappy, penitent affair. It is in moments—quite literally, as ‘Lady Bird’s’ cooperative relationship with Catholicism plays a key role in the film—but it is mostly funny. The girl is winsome. She has more charisma than Sacramento has genera of tree shading its streets. And even when she’s navigating tricky, teenage waters, she does so with a kind of infectious lightness. She’s the kind of young person you feel will go far as soon as she decides to knuckle down and apply herself to something. Since the film was written and directed by Greta Gerwig who grew up in Sacramento, attended a Catholic high school, moved to the East coast to attend college, and is the same age as ‘Lady Bird,’ I think we can surmise that she did eventually apply herself. Don’t count kids out, not matter how infuriating they may be.
Lady Bird is a delight. I hope “Written and Directed by Greta Gerwig” becomes a title card I see frequently.