If you’ve been paying any attention to film news lately, you’ve probably read that “Lady Bird,” the coming-of-age indie written and directed by Greta Gerwig and starring Saoirse Ronan, is doing pretty well.
Reviewers at The New York Times and The New Yorker have called the film “perfect” and “exquisite.” One of The Guardian’s headline writers went so far as to call it, with neither irony nor explanation in the text of the article, “an antidote for Trump culture.” The film currently holds the record for the greatest number of consecutive “Fresh” reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (178 at press time), which apparently makes it “officially, THE BEST REVIEWED FILM OF ALL TIME” (this too from The Guardian, the capitalization theirs).
The film tells the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Ronan), a senior at an all-girls Catholic high school in Sacramento in 2002. Lady Bird hates California and wants to go to the East Coast, to “where culture is, like New York … Or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.” The story picks up near the start of her senior year and includes many of the trappings of silver-screen adolescence: fights with an overworked mother; commiseration with a sweet, unemployed father; a fairy-tale romance with a boy who ends up being too good to be straight; loss of virginity (to a different, worse boy); a part-time job; college applications; the whole shebang.
I’ve seen “Lady Bird,” and I’m here to confirm for you that it is, in fact, good. Since I know most Yalies rely on Weekend as their exclusive, definitive arbiter of all things good and bad in the culture, I accept in advance your thanks for this service. No need to write in.
More important than the film’s relative artistic, cinematographic and sentimental merits, however, is the fact that it is based in Sacramento. This fact is more important because I am from Sacramento, and I am the one writing this review.
(OK, well, I’m technically from a suburb, but going to college out of state where people have no reason to know the difference between Sacramento and its suburbs — if, in fact, they know where Sacramento is at all — means I now identify with the city in the deep, primal manner only available to homesick transplants. Let me live, reader!)
“Lady Bird” is based in Sacramento because, up until she left for college, writer-director Gerwig was herself based in Sacramento. Gerwig attended St. Francis High School, an all-girls school on which Lady Bird’s fictionalized Immaculate Heart is based. Many reviewers have taken this to mean that the film is autobiographical, but Gerwig insists that it’s mostly not: “I never made anyone call me another name. I never had dyed-red hair. She’s so much more wild and outspoken, and I think I was only ever that way in my head.”
I was also only ever that way in my head, but I have no qualms about claiming “Lady Bird” as a more refined version of my autobiography.
The scene in which Lady Bird tells her school’s guidance counselor that she wants “schools like Yale, but not Yale, because I probably couldn’t get in.” Relatable.
The scene in which she sells out her hometown within 24 hours of arriving at her fancy East Coast college (she tells someone at a party that she’s “from San Francisco”)? Sadly, also a moment stolen from my life.
The details are different, but the shots are the same. I’ll admit that I teared up at the shot of the American River as seen from the J Street Bridge, the huge green trees framing the water and the late-afternoon light tinting everything yellow. Because that’s my view, you know?
Gerwig wrote in the film’s production notes about the influence of Joan Didion, probably Sacramento’s most famous native child of the past century, on the development of her own sense of the city. “When I discovered her writing as a young teenager,” Gerwig wrote of Didion, “it was spiritually seismic … She was my personal poet laureate. It was the first time I experienced an artist’s eye looking at my home.”
The film, in fact, begins with a quote from Didion — “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento,” the truth of which I can verify — and as part of the film’s publicity Gerwig gave an interview to the Sacramento Bee in which she referred to the National Book Award-winning author as a “friend.”
Still, I think Gerwig would agree with my hesitance to elevate by direct comparison her work to the level of Didion’s. Didion once wrote, in “The White Album,” that “a place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image.” Sacramento — and, let’s be real, California writ large — still belongs, according to this definition, to Didion.
But the fact remains that “Lady Bird” contains echoes of Didion’s prose. For instance, the scene in which Lady Bird arrives in New York seems indelibly like Didion’s account of her own arrival in that city: “The warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that it would never be quite the same again.”
Which, coming from a Sacramento-area native and avowed Didion fanatic like myself, is high praise indeed.
Robbie Short | firstname.lastname@example.org .