Greta Gerwig’s 2017 solo directorial debut Lady Bird is a love story.
True love for best friends. Turbulent love for mothers. Innocent love for the boy who turns out to be gay. False love for the boy who “hasn’t lied in two years.” What strikes me more and more each time I watch it, though, is the unexpected love for home.
These types of love stories are not new to Gerwig. She explored similar themes in Frances Ha, a film she co-wrote with partner Noah Baumbach and also starred in as the titular character. [If you didn’t read “titular” in Beanie Feldstein’s voice, go ahead and reread it. Thanks.] Frances Ha is a love letter to New York City as well as to best friends.
Lady Bird is the same, but with Sacramento and younger best friends: Lady Bird (played by Saoirse Ronan) and Julie (played by Beanie Feldstein). Gerwig herself grew up in California, so this film has personal touches. Even though some details are specific to her life, she does not consider herself to be Lady Bird.
Her fingerprint on this film lies in the smallest of details.
Like Lady Bird, Gerwig was fascinated by a specific wealthy neighborhood in Sacramento. In her A24 podcast discussion with Barry Jenkins, Gerwig shares that another one of the personal details she considered to be very important to the film was that on Lady Bird’s birthday, her father would bring her a cupcake on a specific plate. It had to be the red one that says “You are special today.”
Also on the A24 podcast, she explained her reasoning for embracing these small decisions throughout the film. “I think sometimes you have to lean into the things that are weird or a little different about you because that is what makes you a voice,” she said.
The first detail Gerwig determined for this film was that it was going to be a Sacramento film. “I have the privilege of being from a place,” she said on the podcast.
From the very start, we witness the evolution of Lady Bird’s relationship with her hometown. When the film opens, she and her mother Marion are sleeping in a hotel bed, then they pack up to head home after visiting several colleges. Lady Bird’s first line: “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?”
When 17-year-olds go on college visits in new cities or states, they gain an awareness of the place that has shaped them, whether it makes them hate it or love it. Lady Bird thinks she hates it, but one of the nuns at her school notices how much she loves Sacramento through reading her college essay. Lady Bird denies this, claiming she simply pays attention.
“Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”
Throughout the film, she emphasizes her desire to go “where culture is” in the Northeast and her disappointment in her home on “the wrong side of the tracks.”
Marion is saddened by Lady Bird’s hatred for home. When Danny (played by Lucas Hedges), tells Marion that Lady Bird said they lived “on the wrong side of the tracks,” her face dropped. Marion does love Sacramento. When we see her drive home from work as John Hartford’s “This Eve of Parting” plays, she smiles looking around at familiar sights.
At the end of the film, Lady Bird is leaving her mother a voicemail. She asks her if she felt emotional the first time she drove in Sacramento. This early scene with Marion shows her answer: yes. And she still does.
The film is a collection of small moments: opening socks at Christmas, browsing a thrift store, going to mass, sitting through school assemblies. Gerwig has a talent for taking these ordinary moments and making them important without forcing them to be extraordinary.
I’ve come across a few people who think the film is “okay.” In the words of Father Leviatch (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson), “They didn’t understand it.”
While this line in the film was accompanied by tremendous sorrow, I do not feel that sorrow when people don’t understand this film.
I feel lucky to have understood it.