‘Lady Bird’ and the Power of Place

Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age film set in Sacramento, California, is dazzling audiences as much as it’s dazzled critics. Despite its limited release four weeks ago in arty theaters, it’s still among the top ten films for domestic box office, grossing more than $17 million to date. And for good reason: It’s a lovely movie.

Saoirse Ronan is incandescent as seventeen-year-old “Lady Bird” (the name she insists upon being called, even though her real name is Christine), and equally riveting is Laurie Metcalf as Lady Bird’s weary, put-upon mother, Marion, pinching pennies and working double shifts as a psychiatric nurse to keep her family’s precarious finances glued together after Lady Bird’s father loses his job when his company folds (the year is 2002). Marion can’t seem to stop guilt-tripping her discontented daughter in masterly displays of passive aggression, and Lady Bird can’t seem to help going out of her way to antagonize her mother at every turn, including applying to expensive East Coast colleges that the family can’t afford. Plus, she does a lot of dumb things, ranging from disastrous choices in boyfriends to dumping her homely but devoted best friend (Beanie Feldstein) so she can cozy up to the school’s rich-girl clique—which entails her pretending to live in one of the better-neighborhood mansions instead of her family’s tiny tract house. She gets caught in that lie, of course, with predictable consequences. Eventually, though, Lady Bird, wiser the hard way after a freshman drinking binge at her new New York City university, comes to terms with herself as a Sacramento girl and with the intense mother-daughter love just behind the scrim of the pair’s incessant quarrels. She learns how to be Christine.

That’s a terrific story line. But Lady Bird is a wonder in other ways. It presents a refreshingly positive picture of the middle-class small-town life in the rural America that, ever since the nomination and election of President Trump, has been generally presented in the media as either a cesspool of racist deplorables or, alternatively, as a safari destination for coastal journalists seeking to understand the totems and taboos of the trailer-dwelling, opioid-addled, underemployed exotics who for some reason declined to vote for Hillary Clinton. The latest entry in this reportorial genre is New Yorker staff writer Larissa MacFarquhar’s November 13 article, “Where the Small-Town American Dream Lives On,” in which she lamented that many of the inhabitants of a perfectly prosperous rural Iowa town didn’t move to big cities and turn into broad-minded liberals: “Those who move to a politically dissimilar place tend to become independents; those who move to a place where people vote the same way they do tend to become more extreme in their convictions.”

Sacramento, the capital of California and with a population of nearly 500,000, isn’t a small town, of course. But, situated nearly ninety miles northeast of San Francisco, it’s in the heart of the Central Valley, California’s agricultural heartland and a redoubt of red-state culture that is utterly alien to the “louche Pacific littoral,” John Gregory Dunne’s catch-phrase for the liberal California coast. Gerwig, a Sacramento native herself, presents her middle-class subjects sympathetically: struggling to get by in a changing economy but retaining their essential dignity and fondness for each other. Lady Bird is in some ways a remake of Breaking Away, Peter Yates’s 1979 male coming-of-age look at a middle-class family struggling to get by in de-industrializing Bloomington, Indiana. Like Lady Bird, nineteen-year-old cycling enthusiast Steve Soller (Dennis Christopher) pretends to be something that he’s not—an Italian exchange student at Indiana University—with, yes, predictable consequences.

And strangely enough, Lady Bird, whose heroine attends a Catholic high school whose tuition her parents have scraped up because the local public school seems too violence-afflicted, presents the first positive view of Catholic education that I’ve seen in a long time. The usual cinematic paradigm for Catholic school is 2001’s Sister Mary Explains It All, in which a rigidly doctrinaire nun first turns her young charges into neurotics and then shoots some of them dead, or 2002’s The Magdalene Sisters, in which the nuns are outright sadists. By contrast, and perhaps because Gerwig, although not a Catholic, attended a Catholic high school in Sacramento herself, the nuns and priests who staff Lady Bird’s Catholic school are, yes, morally strict, and they try their best to enforce the rules against boys and girls going hip to hip at school dances. But they are also kindly and well aware of teen-age weaknesses and foibles; Lois Smith, playing the principal of Lady Bird’s high school, Immaculate Heart, is as wise, gently humorous, and generous of spirit as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music.

For this reason, Lady Bird isn’t just an immensely satisfying movie. It’s a movie that says something real to audiences who haven’t heard such truths in a while, and for that reason it’s clearly resonating.

Image: IAC Films

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