Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird delivers a woman’s coming-of-age in a particular cultural moment. At once, it explores the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, makes the invisible forces of class visible, and evokes the feeling of Sacramento in 2002 – a year the titular character quips is only exciting because it’s a palindrome. We follow Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (a DIY pink-haired Saoirse Ronan) through her senior year in an all-girls Catholic high school, at a pace as hard and fast as adolescence. She experiences rites of passage endemic to coming-of-age stories, like dancing at prom and losing her virginity, but these act as small moments in a film that ultimately explores the chasm separating who you are from what – and where – you think you should be.
In the opening scene, Lady Bird tells her mother (Laurie Metcalf) that she hates California and wants to go to college where culture is. This artistic Eden can apparently be found in New York City, “or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods”. She yearns for more than provincial Sacramento has to offer, but out-of-state college is a luxury her family may not be able to afford.
Lady Bird’s actions are often coloured by her desire to run away from who she is. She opts for a kind of stage name instead of her given Christine; she asks to be dropped off a block away from school. Gazing up at a perfectly painted blue house in an affluent neighbourhood, Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) exchange stories about the lives they could lead inside. Later on, she lies to a popular girl and claims the blue house as her own. She doesn’t want anyone at school to know that she lives, “on the wrong side of the tracks”. She doesn’t see the hurt on her mother’s face upon learning this is how she describes home.
It’s difficult for Lady Bird to appreciate what her working-class family has because she envies those around her who have more. She is, after all, a product of capitalist society and a comer-of-age in the era where George W. Bush advised for Americans to go shopping in the wake of 9/11. And Julie, who lacks the house and nuclear family that Lady Bird has, looks up to her in the same way. Gerwig’s film isn’t an overt political commentary. She weaves class tensions into the narrative to render how they quietly but firmly shape our lives. Class is a topic often tiptoed around in American conversations and films. Perhaps Gerwig was influenced by Mike Leigh, her favorite filmmaker, whose work bluntly portrays the realities of working-class life in the UK.
The lusting for more that drives the film is not only economic, but adolescent. Lady Bird expresses herself to the fullest in her streaky hair and reworked thrift store outfits; the boys’ names vandalised on her bedroom walls; the passionate declarations she makes at school, on stage, at home – what she’s feeling at a given moment matters less than how much she feels, and how quickly she moves on. After kissing her first crush of the film (Lucas Hedges) on a starlit night, she stands in the street, screaming. This image reminded me of a passage in Chris Kraus’ cult novel I Love Dick in which she reflects on her obsession with a man who won’t answer her letters. She writes: “I feel so teenage…When you’re living so intensely in your head there isn’t any difference between what you imagine and what actually takes place. Therefore, you’re both omnipotent and powerless.” The heightened state of adolescence may cloud our subjectivity, but it empowers us to live with feeling.
Lady Bird’s mother wishes she would feel a little less. She struggles with her daughter’s impracticality and ignorance of what she has, while Lady Bird questions what’s wrong with wanting more. We watch the pair bicker in the car and revive old arguments, triggering muscle memory for viewers across generations. Standing beside the dressing room in the thrift store where they find a dress for prom, Lady Bird asks her mother, “Do you like me?” Marion reassures her love, but we know to love is not always to like. Gerwig doesn’t pass judgment on the behaviour of either of these characters. At the 55th New York Film Festival, she spoke about how the film belongs to them both. “Somebody’s coming-of-age is somebody else’s letting go, and I was just as interested in the letting go as I was in the young people’s stories”.
Many reviews of Lady Bird focus on its parallels to Gerwig’s personal life. Like Lady Bird, the writer-director grew up in suburban Sacramento and attended Catholic high school. Sacramento is also the setting of the holiday homecoming sequence in Frances Ha, the popular 2013 film that Gerwig co-wrote (with collaborator and partner Noah Baumbach) and starred in. Similarities can be drawn between Gerwig’s Frances and Ronan’s Lady Bird, both of whom shine with eccentricity and daydream about living different lives. But each character is ultimately unique to her filmic world. Perhaps Gerwig’s ‘indie darling’ status paired with her embracement of individualistic characters breeds a kind of voyeurism among her fans, leading them to hope and to believe that she’s playing herself onscreen.
In his Variety review, Richard Lawson described Lady Bird as “thinly veiled autobiography” – as if pulling details from personal experience to craft fiction makes for cheap storytelling. This criticism is typically reserved for female writers and filmmakers: a double standard implying that women who tell personal stories do so out of a creative inability to invent worlds outside of their own. Gerwig says Lady Bird is fictional with “a core of truth that resonates with what I know.” Mike Mills’ 2016 film 20th Century Women – starring Gerwig in an ensemble cast – incorporates autobiographical elements in a similar way. Yet male critics didn’t try to catch Mills in the act of collaging passages from his diary to form a screenplay. Based in truth or not, all good stories must be crafted. These films act as lessons in writing poignant family fiction: embrace what you know, and re-contextualise it.
It’s only when Lady Bird arrives in New York City to start school that she realises how much her home means to her. On a hungover walk downtown, she leaves her mother a voicemail, reflecting on the first time she drove in Sacramento – how overwhelming it felt to see all of the bends she’d known her whole life from a new perspective. We’re reminded of an earlier scene in which Lady Bird’s principal nun compliments her college essay – how her love for Sacramento comes through in the details. Lady Bird contests that she just pays attention. The sister asks, “But aren’t they the same thing…Love and attention?” A specific story with universal, emotional resonance, Lady Bird shows us the fruits of paying attention.