“I wish I could live through something.”
The senior year of high school, the cusp of adulthood, is the setting for Lady Bird, the coming-of-age comic drama from writer/director Greta Gerwig. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Rowan) is at that point where she is not satisfied with her life. Her hometown of Sacramento seems to be the epitome of nowhere. Her family, which is struggling financially, is somewhat embarrassing to her. Even her image of herself isn’t what she wants it to be, and so she has chosen her own name.
Lady Bird’s senior year (2002-3) is almost a holding pattern for her desire to leave and live the kind of life she believes exists in other places. She wants to go to New York for college, even though her grades are mediocre and her family can’t afford much. Along the way there is experimentation with acting, boyfriends. There is typical teenage heartbreak. But mostly there is conflict with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf).
Marion is very pragmatic. She hunts for bargains. She works two shifts. She tries to push Lady Bird out of her own self-absorption. There are times she and Lady Bird bond as mothers and daughters often do, but they also irritate and repel each other as mothers and daughters often do. Marion often seems hard or angry, but she is always loving. Lady Bird only senses the animosity, leading her at one point to say “I wish that you liked me.” But she fails to see just how much Marion and Lady Bird’s father (Tracy Letts) do for her. Lady Bird is often cruel in her relationship with her mother. Never in big ways, but she tends to wound with a thousand small cuts.
There is a great sense of reality to this relationship, in not small part because of the reality of the characters. Ronan’s portrayal of Lady Bird is not about a great teenage angst, just the day-to-day struggle to understand who she is and wants to be. Metcalf’s Marion is not a saccharine best friend or a dominating harridan. She is struggling with her own understandings of Lady Bird and her desires for Lady Bird’s future.
There is also a spiritual dimension to Lady Bird’s story. Because she attends a Catholic high school (although apparently not Catholic herself), there are scenes that take place in religious services, and priests and nuns play roles in her life and growth. The religious aspect is always treated with respect. The religious characters are just as human as everyone else in the story. The most prominent is Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith), the school’s principal who provides a touch of grace in nearly every scene she is in. And although Lady Bird may not seem to be outwardly religious, the environment that the church has provided through her time at school, provides her with a place to re-center herself when she discovers life away from home is not as different as she had hoped.
This is one of those films that has me wanting to go back to Ecclesiastes. Certainly Lady Bird thinks “There is nothing new under the Sun” (at least in Sacramento). She is busy looking for meaning and happiness in wealth, or sex, or fame, as did Qoheleth. And like Ecclesiastes the discoveries of meaning are found within.
I saw this film on Thanksgiving weekend, and it was amazingly appropriate. So much of our time is spent being oblivious to the many things we have because we so often focus on the things we do not have. That is very much Lady Bird’s experience with the world. Sacrament seems to her to be a place to escape from, even though when she wrote an essay about it, Sister Sarah Joan says it shows she loves this place. She sees her family as an embarrassment, but also a place of love. She thinks she has never really experienced any thing of import, but each little thing adds up to a life time. Which brings us to the quote I use to open this review. It is one of the first lines in the film. By the end, we know (and Lady Bird is discovering) that she has been living through a great deal. That is an important first step in appreciating the world and the people around us.
Photos courtesy of A24.