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Movie Review: Lady Bird

Greta Gerwig flies home in autobiographical tale.


Review by Brandon Wolfe

Greta Gerwig spent her formative years in Sacramento and clearly she has the same love/hate relationship with the city that all of its residents inevitably grapple with at one point or another. Complaining about Sacramento is a rite of passage for Sacramentans. Not being as culturally impressive as nearby places like San Francisco, Napa and Tahoe tends to create a chip on the shoulder for those of us who call the capitol city home. When one character dismisses the place as “the Midwest of California” in Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, it perfectly encapsulates the self-loathing that all Sacramentans often give voice to. In a state full of scenic wonders, Sacramento is unmistakably a bit basic.

Yet while Lady Bird is honest about Sacramento’s lack of pizazz, it’s also a film that is head-over-heels in love with the place. When sullen protagonist Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) hands in an essay to the nun/principal at her Catholic high school that she presumed excoriated her hometown, she is shocked to be met with the comment, “It’s clear how much you love Sacramento.” Sacramento grows on you like a fungus. You often are so convinced of its tediousness that you don’t appreciate, or even fully absorb, how much the city has clandestinely charmed you. There’s a reason why people who move away from Sacramento are often drawn back into its clutches. Christine may still be figuring this out, but Gerwig is acutely aware of it.


Christine (who insists upon being called by her self-bestowed nickname Lady Bird, though few care to take the bait) is locked into a deep bout of adolescent disaffection. It’s her senior year of high school and she longs only to get as far away from the Central Valley as possible, preferably to some Ivy League haven on the East Coast. Yet Christine’s grades are only good enough to unlock doors at select universities, and her stern, micromanaging mother (Laurie Metcalf) would prefer something within driving distance, like UC Davis (Sac State, it should be mentioned, is never given any onscreen consideration). As we follow Christine through her senior year, we watch her dabble in drama class, awkwardly commence dating and begin to navigate social circles, as when she opts to trade in her nerdy best friend (Beanie Feldman) for more popular pastures in the form of a vapid mean girl (Odeya Rush).

Gerwig cut her teeth in the mumblecore movement of the ‘00s before graduating to more polished indie fare, usually working alongside Noah Baumbach, and Lady Bird is certainly of a piece with Gerwig’s output. Yet, while this is an assured debut film as a writer-director, Lady Bird doesn’t feel as lived-in or profound as Baumbach’s Frances Ha, which starred Gerwig as another young woman trying to find her way in the world. Lady Bird bears a strong autobiographical stamp, but Christine’s journey feels frustratingly episodic, as if Gerwig were free-associating details from her own life without molding them into something richer and more complete. As Christine pings between love interests or besties, it all feels random and formless. Life often feels that way, of course, but cinema should arguably have a bit more kick to it.


The most affecting component of Lady Bird lies in Christine’s relationship with her loving yet impossible-to-please mother. Metcalf gives a terrific performance as a woman who loves her daughter deeply yet is fundamentally rubbed the wrong way by everything she does. Ronan also does a great job creating an air of teenage discontent without ever crossing over into the insufferable. The way the film navigates this fraught relationship is the one aspect that feels truly insightful.

But, as a Sacramento native, the biggest pleasure of Lady Bird is the way Gerwig puts the city front and center. This is a true showcase, and it’s a genuine joy to witness all the landmarks Gerwig captures onscreen and how many knowing references she sneaks into her characters’ mouths. Christine may still be coming to terms with how she feels about her home turf, but Gerwig’s love is unmistakable, and that pride beams from the movie with a brighter glow than anything else.

Discuss this review with fellow SJF fans on Facebook. On Twitter, follow us at @SandwichJohnFilms, and follow author Brandon Wolfe at @BrandonTheWolfe.

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