This piece was originally published in the Film Daze Digital Magazine, Issue 6: Adolescence. Enjoy! – The Film Daze Team
In Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age gem Lady Bird, Sacramento is a character. It can’t be heard or spoken to, but the Californian county has its struggles, beauty, and effects. Christine’s (Saoirse Ronan) city decorates her life.
Christine’s setting is a presence in every aspect of her being: her environment, family, schooling, self-perceived lack of culture, it’s all tied to her hometown. Christine — who later chooses the name Lady Bird for herself in a bid to be ‘different’ — dreams of moving to places like New York City, and why wouldn’t she? That’s the kind of place where it’s all happening, the kind of place young girls dream of and adults who have visited miss with an ache. It’s the type of city where you can find romance, art, and yourself. The thought of being one of the many in its bustling crowds is a charming idea for a 17-year-old convinced they’re destined for somewhere bigger and better. So, why at the end of Lady Bird does Christine unravel as soon as she gets her foot in the door of the life she had once envisioned as being perfect?
In the lottery of birth, we’re assigned a country, a city, and a family, among other things. In an unquantifiable universe where it’s a miracle to have been born as a sentient being on a habitable planet, it seems cruel that we don’t get a say in where we land. The universe sort of just spits us out. Magic happened and now you’re here; you don’t understand any of it and probably never will — deal with it. Like a home hair bleaching gone wrong, the desire for the things we didn’t inherit can be so intoxicating that we end up losing what we had in the first place. We romanticise what we don’t have because what we know is boring, and above all else, a person can’t be boring. Boring is the worst thing you can be. It is to Christine, at least.
Soon after meeting Lady Bird, and seeing her throw herself out of a moving car to the horror of her driving mother, we learn she has set goals for her short-term future: she wants to be more popular, experience romance, and go to an impressive school. The first two points she tries to solve through failed attempts of concealing her personality and life: she ignores her best friend in favour of a wealthy, beautiful classmate, tries to assimilate to Kyle’s (Timothee Chalamet) anti-establishment mumble of a personality, and tries to dress up her reality — the reality of what it’s like to live in a struggling household.
Her desire to go to a fancy school can be seen as a last-ditch attempt to put her life plan into action and is the driving force behind much of what happens in Gerwig’s story. We see Christine’s principal giving feedback on an essay she wrote — noting that Christine must love Sacramento because of the detail in which she writes about it — and her guidance counselor is visibly amused by the idea of the pink-haired girl applying to Yale. After she stops giggling, she reassures Christine that it’s her job to help students be realistic. Christine, likely having heard this kind of reaction to her liberal arts education dreams before, responds with “Yeah. That seems like everyone’s job.” It’s in these small moments where someone — intentionally or not — punches down at Christine that Gerwig establishes the teenager’s point of view: everyone is against her and doesn’t want her to do better than they themselves did. And while that common opinion among teens is reductive, it’s not baseless. Christine perhaps isn’t old enough to understand the reason behind well-meaning adults squashing youthful whims: they once wanted more, and someone did the same thing to them. After letting an opportunity pass by because the idea of failure stopped the attempt at success in the first place, they convinced themselves it all worked out for the better, because ‘what ifs’ are debilitating and jealously creeps upon us in the ugliest ways — even after high school.
Gerwig takes us through both teenaged and adult woes with compassion and understanding, and this is evident in how she composes the tension at the heart of Lady Bird: the complex relationship between mother and daughter. The push and pull between Christine and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) is the emotional foundation of Lady Bird, but to understand their friction is to understand that Marion is an extension of Sacramento; when Christine sees her mother, she sees home. Christine resents Marion because she represents the financial stress they’re under (Marion is often seen rushing around in her scrubs), the lack of opportunity, and she’s everything Christine doesn’t want to be. Marion and Sacramento are the perfect scapegoats.
In Christine’s eyes, Marion settled. Settled for Sacramento, settled for a low-paying job, settled for less. Christine hasn’t lived alone, she hasn’t had to feed a family (plus a house guest) on low wages, and she’s not lived through the hardships of life and motherhood like Marion has, so she can’t possibly understand — not yet. Christine likely knows that this bitter resentment is unfair, like all kids who grew up in similar circumstances do, but these feelings are just as shameful as they are hard to mask.
Marion’s disappointment in Christine’s behaviour (and chosen name) is just as hard to hide. She loves and wants the best for her daughter, but Metcalf plays Marion with her nose up to most of Christine’s quirks, and Gerwig plants seeds of resentment in Marion too: Marion can’t seem to be happy about Christine getting into a better school than they thought she would. They love each other, but can barely stand to be in the same room.
Marion is just trying her best and is one of the most real characters to come out of 2017, so her bittersweet reaction to Christine moving across the country to attend college in New York is understandable. She’s done everything she can to make her house a warm place for her family, even if it’s imperfect, but her youngest is ecstatic at the thought of leaving anyway. Lady Bird‘s clever screenplay observes that attention and love can be the same thing. If this is true, Marion showered her daughter with love. By the time she’s writing and rewriting letters addressed to Christine before she leaves — trying to find the right words in a relationship where she’s often said the wrong ones — the viewer understands her pain and inner-conflict to the same degree we understand Christine’s.
Homesickness is described as “A feeling of longing for one’s home during a period of absence from it.” Such a feeling seems an impossibility for those of us who dislike where we’re from, who imagine our better dressed, more sociable future selves serving bite-sized appetizers in our well-decorated apartments during cocktail parties. This version would know what to say, how to act, and be free of anything holding us back or associated with home. Home would be something we mention in passing or visit once or twice a year to leave again with a reenergized understanding of why you moved away in the first place. That’s how Christine probably imagined it. But that’s not her reality by the end of Gerwig’s film, which paints Sacramento as a beautiful antagoniser, a first love you can never get over.
“Hey, Mom, did you feel emotional the first time that you drove in Sacramento?” Ronan monologues, “All those bends I’ve known my whole life, and stores, and the whole thing.” Gerwig cuts to Christine driving, her face lit gorgeously by warm sunlight, and then seamlessly to Marion — two opposites whose fates were decided in different ways, but are still somehow similar. Metcalf provides Marion with an unforgettable expression; one of happiness, sadness, contentment, and regret all at once. Her daughter is far away, reaching out to her through the telephone. She wants to tell her she loves her and that Christine is a good enough name. Speaking to voicemail, the moment is inscribed with painful disconnect. Marion didn’t pick up, and Christine is upset and alone in a city that ate her up and spat her back out. Once a young girl obsessed with the idea of adulthood, she’s now a distraught young woman with mascara streaking down her cheeks calling her mother for help just as a child would. She misses the attention, and had to leave to realise that we don’t magically transform into our best selves by packing up and leaving. Growth doesn’t stop at adolescence. In fact, most of it is yet to come.