Lady Bird – which played this week at the New York Film Festival – is the solo directorial debut for Greta Gerwig (she co-directed 2008’s Night’s and Weekends) and it’s an utter delight. It’s getting tougher and tougher to grasp onto anything these days that that could be described as “delightful,” so please don’t take this for granted. You should see Lady Bird (it will be in theaters November 3) and, when you do, savor its delightfulness because this is a tougher and tougher commodity to find.
Last week I saw Springsteen on Broadway here in New York, and there’s a part of the show in which Bruce Springsteen laments his love/hate relationship with his hometown of Freehold, New Jersey. These mixed feelings are embedded in many of us when it comes to where we are all originally from. (I certainly feel that way about Missouri. We moved around so much when I was a kid, it’s hard for me to pick one true hometown, but for some reason they were all in Missouri.) I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately, especially with how divided everyone has become and how “home” for me has less and less meaning because, when I do go back, I barely recognize it anymore. With these thoughts already circling in my head, I saw Lady Bird, which is Greta Gerwig’s hate/love letter to her hometown of Sacramento, California (dubbed “the Midwest of California” in the movie). I can’t remember the last time a film covered this topic so well.
Here’s what makes Lady Bird unique and special: In movies that deal with “hometowns,” many filmmakers will have the protagonist of the story have to go back home; often because there’s either a death in the family, or someone is sick, or the protagonist crashed and burned in “the big city” and doesn’t have anywhere else to go. What Gerwig does is smart: instead of going back, she sets the film in 2003 and explores what it was that created these emotions in the first place.
After I saw Lady Bird, a publicist for the film asked me what I thought and I just kind of blurted out something about Superbad and the publicist started to frown. Superbad is a great movie, but it’s probably not the movie they want to be compared to while launching an Oscar campaign. (Changing my statement to “a highbrow Superbad” didn’t help.) But my point was that it reminded me of how Seth Rogen and Even Goldberg wrote about their experiences in high school, then cast Jonah Hill and Michael Cera to play versions of themselves. Gerwig does the same with Saoirse Ronan who is both fantastic as Lady Bird and, at times, I had to remind myself I wasn’t actually watching Greta Gerwig, circa 2003. (Also, perhaps my Superbad comparison was exacerbated by the fact that Beanie Feldstein, Jonah Hill’s sister, plays Lady Bird’s best friend. If any Lady Bird publicists are reading this, I promise I’ll stop with this comparison now.)
Ronan plays Christine McPherson, but prefers to be called Lady Bird. She attends a Catholic high school and, more than anything, wants to go to college as far away from Sacramento as possible. Her parents (played by Tracy Letts and Laurie Metcalf) are struggling financially, but her dad is supportive of her plans to go to school on the East Coast, but her mother (Metcalf is dynamite in this role) is vehemently against this idea and it adds tension to an already strained relationship between Lady Bird and her mother.
Lady Bird begins to distance herself from her friends to seek out people who, on the surface, may seem more interesting before realizing that may not have been the best of ideas. (Think back to high school, the “coolest” people were often, in reality, the most boring. It takes awhile to realize this.) But the almost-catharsis that Lady Bird goes through as it seems more and more likely she’ll be living in New York City (spoiler alert: Greta Gerwig hasn’t lived her whole life in Sacramento) is quite touching. Her friends and her family and her town mean a whole lot more now that she knows she won’t be around them much longer.
For those of us who moved away, and stayed away, Lady Bird will have a lot of meaning. Bruce Springsteen is right, we do have a complicated relationship with where we are from. But as Springsteen says during his Broadway show, he’s the guy known for singing about hitting the road, getting out of town and never coming back. Then Springsteen delivers the punchline, “I currently live 10 miles from the house where I grew up.” Lady Bird made me feel something I hadn’t felt in a long time: It made me miss home.
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