Like her literary hero Joan Didion, Greta Gerwig hails from Sacramento, California, and has always worn her West Coast idiosyncrasy as part of her distinct charm as a performer. Emerging from the “mumblecore” scene of the mid 2000s, she was briefly (and fatuously) feted as Hollywood’s next quirky ingenue, before reshaping her trajectory by co-authoring 2012’s exuberant Brooklyn blast Frances Ha with her collaborator and partner, director Noah Baumbach. Lady Bird is her first film as sole director, a loosely autobiographical, unexpectedly tender coming-of-age piece that returns Gerwig, with a vivid sense of time and place, to her hometown.
The film opens with a quietly disparaging quote from Didion about her sleepy city, bluntly appended by the self-anointed Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), a 17-year-old Catholic high school senior. “I hate California,” she declares, moments before hurling herself from her mother’s moving vehicle. It’s 2002, and Lady Bird fancies herself a bohemian flower among the weeds of suburban Sacramento’s strip malls and dead-end clear skies, grimly punctuated by the sounds of Justin Timberlake and TV dispatches from the War on Terror. It’s a world specific to Sacramento and yet familiar to anyone who was a teenager in the wasteland of the early 21st century. Gerwig furnishes it in acute detail, from flip-phones and dial-up to the McMansions coexisting with economic downsizing. It’s a millennial slant on that California where, as Didion once wrote, “a boom mentality and a sense of Chekhovian loss meet in uneasy suspension”.
Echoing Gerwig’s own lilting, erratic cadence, the film moves in unpredictable dramatic ways, wired to the rhythm of adolescent life and the enduring beats of the teen movie genre. Under Gerwig’s perceptive direction, Ronan spins on a dime from Ghost World sarcasm to open heart revelation as she maps Lady Bird’s fumbling from self-absorption to the first intimations of adulthood. Nowhere is this better realised than in Lady Bird’s relationship with her working-class mother (a career-best Laurie Metcalf), an achingly real love–hate symbiosis that gives the film its emotional sting.
What resonates most is the adult perspective on memory that comes with time, and the inevitable return and reconciliation with home. In the film’s most expressive montage – moments after Lady Bird has dissolved her teenage bedroom, painting over the crushes inscribed on her wall – a series of elegant match cuts capture mother and daughter driving against the California sunlight in temporal synchronicity. It’s no surprise that the moment recalls one of Didion’s remarks in Griffin Dunne’s recent documentary Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold. The veteran author says of her hometown, “It formed everything I ever think, or ever do, or am.” In Lady Bird, we find Gerwig’s own creation myth, and it’s a gem.