“Lady Bird” begins with its eponymous character, a 17-year-old with blotchy, hydrant-red hair and acne scarring, and her mother Marion, an anxious psychiatric nurse, crying side-by-side in the family car as they drive around Sacramento. They’re listening to the end of a “Grapes of Wrath” audiobook.
By the end of the film, my mother and I are crying side-by-side in the movie theater. Or OK, the crying started early on.
In her solo screenwriting-directing debut, Greta Gerwig (until now better known as an actor in films like “20th Century Women,” “Frances Ha,” and “Mistress America”; the latter two she also co-wrote) loosely channels her own adolescent upbringing in Sacramento during the early 2000s by way of the McPhersons, a lower middle class family whose youngest defines herself by what she doesn’t have, and whose matriarch is motivated by fears of what she’ll lose. From that first moment in the car, it’s obvious Lady Bird (played by Saoirse Ronan) and Marion (Laurie Metcalf) are more alike than either would care to believe: They feel intensely and act stubbornly.
Lady Bird, whose birth name is Christine but whose “given” name (“given to me by me”) is a frequent point of contention between her and her mother, is applying to colleges as she completes her final scholarship-funded year at a Catholic high school. Marion insists that she only apply to nearby state schools, but eager to get as far as possible from her hyper-critical mother and apparently boring hometown, Lady Bird applies instead to more glamorous colleges in New York with the secret help of her even-tempered and recently laid-off father (Tracy Letts).
In the meantime, Lady Bird navigates the syllabus of teendom: Friends, boys, popularity, sex, drugs, music. She unabashedly loves Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Crash Into Me’ (she also has the cover for Bikini Kill’s singles compilation album on her bedroom wall, for what it’s worth), but before she can say that out loud she must become confident in her tastes—not a given for most teen girls. Lady Bird tries to assimilate to the culture of cool established by say, the trust fund bro (Timothée Chalamet) who hangs with the other rich popular kids but claims to be an anticapitalist and tries so, so hard to give off a loner vibe. Coming from less than wealthy families, Lady Bird and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) appear to be a minority at their school, an isolating predicament familiar to anyone who’s pulled together scholarships or financial aid to make a private education possible.
By the way, here you’ll see a rare portrayal of a Catholic school as a nurturing if sometimes absurd environment—yes, the prom theme is “The Eternal Flame” and communion wafers are the snack of choice, but the nuns and priests who run the school are empathetic and amiable caregivers (a married math teacher, on the other hand, subtly but deliberately feeds Julie’s crush). An endearing moment steeped in dark candor: The priest (Stephen Henderson) who runs the school’s drama department challenges his students to see who can be the first to cry on command—it’s him in a matter of seconds, and he can’t stop. He later has to take time off to receive psychiatric treatment, with the help of Marion, for his depression.
The school’s principal (Lois Smith), a nun who is merely amused when targeted by Lady Bird’s attempt to impress the cool kids (her car is redecorated in matrimonial trappings with the words “just married to Jesus” on the back windshield), delivers perhaps the wisest insight in Gerwig’s exquisite script: She notes that Lady Bird in fact loves Sacramento deeply, judging by the acute observations of her hometown articulated in her college application essay.
“I guess I pay attention,” Lady Bird shrugs.
“Don’t you think they’re the same thing?” the nun offers. “Love and attention?”
Though the love is palpable in other ways, Gerwig and the film’s cinematographer Sam Levy actually pay little attention to Sacramento itself. All shots are straightforward and restrained, effective in keeping with the film’s devotion to simplicity. But by focusing almost exclusively on the characters and little on the space they inhabit, the film fails to give a physical sense of the city for which “Lady Bird” clearly serves as a tribute otherwise—a strange omission.
Before that sweet Steinbeck cry scene, the film is introduced by a quote from a 1979 interview with Joan Didion, also a native of Gerwig’s hometown: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” To put it another way, Sacramento is “the Midwest of California,” as Lady Bird bitterly calls it. There is nothing remarkable about her home in the way that the counterculture of elsewhere in California or the art scene in New York are remarkable.
As Lady Bird rails against familiarity, Gerwig mines its riches. The film’s very premise is almost aggressively ordinary: A coming-of-age story about a teen who’s sick of her family, especially her passive aggressive but dedicated mom; who rejects her delightfully dorky best friend in favor of the popular kids and lives to regret it; who finds only disappointment in boys and her “first time”; who wishes her family wasn’t so poor and that they lived in the big blue house in a Roland Park-esque neighborhood of Sacramento.
But Gerwig doesn’t set out to prove, as many have before, that the extraordinary can be found in the most mundane places and people—even though her writing is profound and the cast (especially Metcalf) thoroughly outstanding. For most of us (if we’re lucky enough), mundanity is where we mostly exist, where we grow and change and also remain stay doggedly the same, where we shape ourselves in relation to the people we know best, where we cry most openly. The ordinary is home, and at home, exceptionality is not only unnecessary but irrelevant.
“Lady Bird” is now playing at The Charles Theatre.