Born and bred in Sacramento, California, Lady Bird director Greta Gerwig never thought she would make a film about “the Midwest of California” (as Lady Bird’s titular character refers to it) that resonated with so many people.
But the film, released in November, has nearly 200 reviews and a 100 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, making it the best-reviewed film of all time. It is Gerwig’s directorial debut and is already lauded as one of the most definitive coming-of-age narratives of the decade.
The film follows 17-year-old Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a quirky, coral-haired Catholic school girl who inexplicably insists on going by “Lady Bird.”
Set in suburban Sacramento circa 2002, it chronicles Lady Bird’s last year of high school as she navigates the conventions of adolescence — math class, college applications, school dances — while maintaining a tenacious desire to abandon the cultural wasteland of lower middle class-California for New York.
Gerwig paints a (sometimes painstakingly) accurate portrait of being a teenager through scenes that seamlessly saunter from hilarious to heart-wrenching. Lady Bird is this generation’s patron saint of what it’s really like growing up as a girl.
A kaleidoscope of dynamic characters dance in and out of Lady Bird’s life — her timid but true-blue BFF Julie (Beanie Feldstein), aloof “cool girl” Jenna, two would-be lovers who both turn out to be Mr. Wrong, her adopted older brother and his goth girlfriend and her dad who plays the “good cop” while she traverses a turbulent relationship with her well-meaning but misguided mother (Laurie Metcalf).
The film is rife with things that are indicative of the early aughts — flip phones, clove cigarettes, describing things as “hella tight,” “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band and the residual unease of 9/11 and the dot-com crash. It also portrays the banalities of a suburban life that are strikingly reminiscent of Gerwig’s upbringing. She also went to Catholic school in Sacramento, though she admits she was less brazen and rebellious than Lady Bird. However, her depiction of her hometown is incisive; she romanticizes it without looking at it through rose-colored glasses — it’s beautiful, but it’s real.
Gerwig says it took her several years to develop the screenplay. Once she’s on set, she says there’s no room for improvisation — a surprising fact considering nearly every piece of dialog in the film sounds like it’s not scripted.
“From the first time I started writing it to being in production was about three years, and then it took a year after that to finish editing it and bringing into the world,” she says. “Filmmaking is a long process, but it’s a very rewarding one.”
Gerwig wanted to make a film that was both about childhood and the loss of innocence — about a child realizing her parents aren’t invincible and her parents realizing that their child is her own person.
“I wanted to make a film that was both one person’s coming of age and another person’s letting go,” she says. “I wanted it to be as much about the adults as it was about the teenagers.”
Throughout the film, Lady Bird struggles with her sense of identity, not only with who she is but where she is. The meaning of home — or at least Lady Bird’s perception of it — evolves throughout the film, proving the transformative nature of time and place.
The film opens with a quote: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”
It’s an excerpt from an interview with journalist Joan Didion, also from Sacramento, who simultaneously seems to romanticize and demonize California’s capital, a sentiment that is summed up by Lady Bird in the film — a love-hate relationship with the city that raised her.
“Reading Joan Didion… was the first time I had the experience of reading a great writer and a true artist (who) turned her eye on a place that I was from,” Gerwig says. “I think I can trace back wanting to be a writer and an artist and a creator to reading Joan’s work about California and about Sacramento specifically.”
She hopes Lady Bird will have the same effect on those who feel like they live in a place of cultural insignificance. In fact, she believes there is an abundance of culture and substance in small cities that are often overlooked in the media. She wants to shine a spotlight on the Sacramentos of the world and the Lady Birds that live there.
“I hope that it connects to people who are from cities that are less documented than New York or L.A. or San Francisco or Chicago because I’m interested in those cities and those stories and those places,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of richness there and a lot of things that we don’t get to see… I hope that in a way, someone will watch this and feel like they can make a film about the place that they’re in and not feel like they have to leave in order to make their artistic statement.”
One way that Gerwig aims to connect with the audience is through the soundtrack, which features signature songs from the ‘90s and early 2000s as well as an original score by Jon Brion (Step Brothers, ParaNorman, This Is Forty).
“Music is such an important part of what I think it means to be a teenager and how you form your identity and your taste and imagining an adult life for yourself,” she says.
She also dexterously created three-dimensional characters that were able to tug on the audience’s heart strings one minute and tickle their funny bones the next.
“I never want to turn away from the darkness, but I also don’t want to make villains ever with my characters,” she explains. “I don’t try to present perfect people, nor do I ever want my filmmaking to take my characters down. I want them to be allowed to be flawed and to be loved.”
Lady Bird navigates a number of complex relationships throughout the film, but the most poignant and powerful is her relationship with her mother. Though she has love interests in the film, Lady Bird is not a love story, at least not in the traditional sense.
“I love romance just as much as the next person and I certainly love romance in movies, but I think romance, especially heterosexual romance, has got a lot of great movies. We’ve got a lot of good ones about that,” she says. “I was interested in emotional relationships that were just as deep and vivid and filled with love and complexity, but that (weren’t) a heterosexual romance.”
Though many elements of the film seem to mirror Gerwig’s life, she insists the film is not autobiographical. She says her writing process begins with “a kernel of the truth” and the characters begin to take on a life of their own.
“Very quickly the characters spin out and become their own people and the events of the film have their own shape and form that’s outside of the events of my life,” she explains. “I think for me, the impetus is starting from a place of familiarity and letting that be the thing that allows me to invent.”
Gerwig believes the way Lady Bird feels about Sacramento is universal, that everyone “has a Sacramento in their heart.”
“I’ve always been a believer in the more specific you make something, the more universal it will be, so I didn’t want to make it any town…. Through that specificity, people would have a greater likelihood of connecting to their own life and their own hometown and their own families and where they’re from and where they’re going,” she says. “I think that’s always been this thing that I love about movies — they could take you into a world you’ve never been in… and you feel like you know it.”