The teenage rites of passage that Lady Bird (2018) chronicles are wholly unsurprising, but Greta Gerwig’s solo debut distinguishes itself with a strong sense of time, place and class.
The film is set – vividly – in 2002. During a post-coital argument, Lady Bird’s (Saorsie Ronan) pretentious lover (Timothée Chalamet) reminds her how many civilians have been killed in Iraq (so she gets some perspective on his appalling sexual conduct). In another scene, Lady Bird jokes about a dearth of applicants to New York colleges ‘because… you know… 9/11’.
When a nun (our heroine attends a Catholic school because her brother saw someone stabbed at his comprehensive) comments that Lady Bird writes about her hometown Sacramento with loving insight, the student bats away the compliment: ‘Yeah I pay attention.’ ‘Have you ever thought they may be the same thing? Love and attention?’ If so, Gerwig clearly loves Sacramento too. She enriches her characters by showing, not just their houses, but their streets and neighbourhoods, coffee shops and malls. She chooses the city’s humble landmarks – shot as if they were Mount Rushmore – for the most emotionally pivotal scenes. When Lady Bird and her best friend reconcile after a spat, the backdrop is the city’s sparkling Tower Bridge at golden hour.
Lady Bird asks her mother over voicemail whether she found driving for the first time in Sacramento emotional, and there’s a photo-montage of the city, including gas-pumps and Motel signs. Gerwig finds a way of expressing how a hometown is constantly reinvented in the imagination as it mixes with memories and relationships. Lady Bird’s resentment towards her mother and Sacramento is connected. There is the suggestion throughout that we only get a limited picture of the mother – the blinkered view of a teenage daughter. When Lady Bird displays sensitivity towards her hometown – its idiosyncrasies and beauty – we’re left thinking she might soon extend the same imaginative generosity to her mother.
But it’s not clear the mother deserves her generosity. She won’t allow her daughter to make mistakes or to be a child. In one scene, she weaponises her husband’s joblessness to win an argument about tidying the room. Lady Bird asks if she ever resented her own mother telling her off. Without turning back, the mother replies, drained of feeling, ‘My mother was an abusive alcoholic.’ But then we see those moments of selfless care. She delivers an altered dress to Lady Bird while she’s sleeping. And when the father suggests that her abusiveness lies in a frustrated desire to help Lady Bird, we truly see the mother – in all her desperate self-hatred – for the first time.
Mother is ashamed of her own lack of wealth, and the two bond over their aspirations for a big home (visiting palatial open houses is a favourite Sunday activity). At times the family’s class position seems overwrought, to the point where debt and unemployment are overshadowed by the family’s neurosis. But Gerwig shows a common American reality: not poverty, but the imminent, anxiety-inducing threat of poverty. Neither mother nor daughter are allowed a moment to forget their precariousness. They are in the bathroom discussing dad’s mental health. Despite revealing the grave fact of his depression, mother wants to fob Lady Bird off with some platitude about the fact success doesn’t make you happy. Lady Bird sees through it. ‘But he doesn’t have a job. And he’s depressed’. Those who leave the cinema with a sense of triumphant arrival in New York are forgetting Lady Bird’s future: her precarity will double as a student, and her relationship to Sacramento and her mother, far from resolved, promise a life of uncertain identities.