I’ve been fancying myself with writers and narratives that capture the facets of female complexity. Fittingly, while sitting in the quant Ottawa Bytowne Theatre awaiting the start of “Lady Bird”, I read the first pages of “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” by Joan Didion, a prominent thinker and writer of the late twentieth century, who also happened to be a woman. A few moments later, a 1979 epigraph by Didion would fade onto the screen in black and white:
“Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent Christmas in Sacramento.”
Director Greta Gerwig and Joan Didion, I would later find out are both from Sacramento. As with Christine McPherson, but as she so often corrects people, is Lady Bird – a name “given to me by me”, she explains. And that sets the premise for the story: a girl who demands a different flavour of life from the one the one that was given to her.
Before her directorial debut with Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig had a pretty successful acting career. She spent her times on set as an opportunity to learn, observing and asking the directors question like a makeshift film school. A coming-of-age story is what Gerwig set out to create, deviating from the male-oriented algorithm that they usually follow. And in the simplest of conclusions, it was a masterful success.
“Lady Bird” tells the title character’s coming-of-age story in Sacramento in between the years of 2002 and 2003. In the final year of her Catholic high school, Lady Bird (played by Saoirse Ronan) desperately wants to leave the suburban wasteland of Sacramento and go to New York City for college, where the culture is. As protagonists go, she’s driven by a bravado and naivety that only young protagonists can encapsulate, fittingly juxtaposing the weary, disciplinary Mother who can, at times, be perceived as the antagonist.
Gerwig successfully examines the world that Lady Bird lives in, not with a critical lens, but with an observant one. So many little specificities of the film stick out to me, from the kilted Catholic uniforms, to the strategically placed early-2000s pop tracks, to the subtle backdrop of post-9/11 tensions and war overseas.
It is through Gerwig’s observant and specific lens that we get a zeroed-in narrative, lacking any political agenda, simply telling a story of a girl wanting more in a specific place, in a specific time. And she does this while simultaneously making it touch just about anyone who sees it.
Out of every shining detail, the most engaging part has to the be the central focus of the film; the relationship between Lady Bird and her Mother (played by Laurie Metcalfe). Because, while I had mentioned that she can, at times, be the antagonist, she is also the other half of Lady Bird’s tumultuous love story.
While this film could’ve fallen under the wide umbrella of female coming-of-age tales that are always aligned with the girl’s love for a boy, this film deviated from this in the best way possible way. It is in their mother-daughter relationship – the screaming-in-your-face, pushing-every-button, so-different-but-the-same relationship – that is so reflective of that contemporary dynamic that I was brought back to own life just a few years ago. It is so reflective of my own life, that I think that’s why my brother, a domestic observer of my relationship with our Mother, was the one who recommended I see “Lady Bird”. And why, just a week after seeing it the first time, saw it again but this time with her at my side.
“Lady Bird” is a breath of fresh air, and probably my favourite film of the year. Much like the confidence and authenticity found in pen of Saramento’s Joan Didion, Greta Gerwig created a vivacious girl whose story captures the some of the facets of female complexity and authenticity. It taught me that love and attention are usually one in the same, and that one’s coming of age is another person’s letting go. It is a love story to hometowns, high schools, douchebags, best friends, and Mothers alike, and I cherished every moment of it.