Greta Gerwig has directed Lady Bird, a coming-of-age film that’s as unique as she is.
“Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento,” Joan Didion once said. This epitaph, cutting a crossroads between piety and impropriety, is the starting point for the first feature film directed by Greta Gerwig – arguably the most important New York film actress – as she returns to her California hometown to reminisce.
Lady Bird, starring Saoirse Ronan, confronts class and Catholicism over the final year of high school for the eponymous teenage rebel (birth name: Christine). In a talkback following the film, Gerwig said that the project began as “a very long draft…from December 2013. It was about 350 pages [laughs]; there were a lot more dances.”
As it stands, the film condenses Lady Bird’s senior year into an hour and a half, with just the right amount of dancing to give it the Gerwig effect. The actress, in addition to starring in major New York productions by the likes of Rebeca Miller and Noah Baumbach (Gerwig’s partner since 2011).
She also co-wrote with Baumbach on the films where she gave some of her greatest performances: Mistress America (2015) and Frances Ha (2012). Now behind the camera, Gerwig makes no appearances except in her singular style of comedic stiffness and emotional intimacy.
Lady Bird, somewhat based off the director’s younger self, passes through the movie with pink hair and an arm cast. Her working-class parents invest in her education at the Immaculate Heart all-girls Catholic school, which turns her into an areligious punk searching for an escape from Sacramento.
At the heart of the story is Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), a harried psychiatric nurse and a big believer in touch love, as the two reach the zenith of their alienation, and reconcile into the love of an adult parent-child relationship. But Gerwig is subtle about this, and mother-daughter bonding often plays second-fiddle to angst and high-school antis.
There are times when you think the movie’s going in an entirely different direction, as the romance Lady Bird feels for Danny (Lucas Hedges) and then Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), boys at the adjacent school. Here was a level of verisimilitude which we so rarely see in movies starring teenagers – the feeling of first love is abrupt and all-consuming until you move on.
Lady Bird is a wild child with little academic potential and a vast array of frenetic interests. Gerwig and her editor Nick Houy employ the technique of stitching together months of the year through simple short cuts, often under the auspices of a single motif or sound, to an effect that is comedic but not confusing.
We leapfrog between boys, theater productions, drivers ed, and part-time jobs without delving too deep into any of them. “Young Adult” tropes and tribulations are never especially prominent either, even though the film displays the same loves, losses, and cliques as most high school movies. Gerwig credits this to her star, saying of Ronan, “she has a quality of being always emotionally at a ten, which makes it that much funnier because it came from a place of sincerity. She never played the joke with quotes around it.” Behind all of this, her relationship with her mother slowly struggles toward understanding.
Gerwig: Lady Bird started off as “a very long draft… It was about 350 pages, and there were a lot more dances.”
In person, Gerwig displays a similar heartfelt chaos and a sincerity that doesn’t often come about in directors or actors. Never does this movie feel like a spinoff of her career as the movie star. Unlike so many actors who go into directing, Gerwig is clearly as invested in this less glamorous side of things. When asked what’s next for her, she stated, “I’ll always want to work and act with directors I admire, but I plan to continue directing and writing.”
She herself was born in Sacramento – a fact I remember from a scene in Frances Ha where she visits her real-life parents, Christine and Gordon, on the West Coast. She also went to a Catholic girls’ school.
I asked Gerwig about the autobiographical nature of her work, and her interest in capturing something original out of the adolescent experience, to which she replied, “Nothing in the movie literally happened in my life but it has a core of truth that resonates with what I know. I think I really wanted to make a movie that was a reflection on home – what does home mean and how does leaving home to define what it means to you and your love for it.”
Gerwig once again proves to be fearless without expecting something for her bravery.
I’ve watched Gerwig’s career closely for years, but getting to see her in person today felt more familiar and casual than, for lack of a better word, star-studded. The sincerity I spoke of earlier was the greatest gift of her presence, and it’s a pathos and penetrates anything she does. In the three weeks of the festival, my peers never spoke with such familiarity as they did to Gerwig today, and the applause never lasted as long. Any sense of animosity, of the alienation that pervades this vapid industry, disappears when she walks in the room.
Though it contains a thoughtful, humorous script and a great many all-out performances (particularly Metcalf and Ronan), sincerity is also the single greatest asset of her new movie. It’s not so much witty or sympathetic as just plain honest and takes for granted things that few other films in its league would dare to touch on, such as the falsity of young love, or the presence of poverty even in the insulation of childhood. Gerwig once again proves to be fearless without expecting something for her bravery. She exists as herself, a good person in addition to a great filmmaker.
“What better way to make a love letter than through someone who is trying to get out and then realizes they loved it?” Gerwig asked in today’s press conference. It’s a verbalization of a cinematic moment in her film when Lady Bird finally brings her aid above the myriad waters of her jostled life and gains a litter perspective.
Sitting in an office at Immaculate Heart, the head nun tells Lady Bird, “I read your college essay. You must really love Sacramento.” The line got some laughs at first; Sacramento is the personified antagonist to so much of Lady Bird, a California town that with a Midwestern isolation. Lady Bird also disputes her: “I don’t know that I love it, I just pay attention that’s all.” “But aren’t they the same thing,” the head Sister asks her, “love and attention?”