After a decade working in independent cinema, Greta Gerwig might be expected to have formed a taste for directing, especially since she collaborated with Joe Swanberg on some of their earliest features together. Still, not even her most remarkable moments in front of the camera prepared me for Lady Bird, which feels like an instant coming-of-age classic, and one of the most evocative – possibly the most evocative – depictions of high school life that I’ve seen in the last decade. Set in 2002, in Sacramento, the script revolves around Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a girl in her last year of high school, and her relationship with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), father Larry (Tracy Letts) and best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), along with a pair of love interests, in the form of Danny (Lucas Hedges), who she meets during a musical production, and Kyle (Timothee Chalamet), who she meets at an indie musical gig. Despite speculations into the autobiographical aspects of the film and screenplay, Gerwig has indicated that it’s only loosely based on her own life as a teen, with the result that it’s probably Lady Bird’s ambivalent relationship with her home city of Sacramento that rings truest with Gerwig’s own experiences. Opening with a quote from Joan Didion, and introducing us to Lady Bird and Marion as they come to the end of a twenty-hour audio book rendition at the close of a road trip into the heartland, the film presents Sacramento as an extension of the Midwest, as remote from Los Angeles or San Francisco as any small town in the wheat or rust belts.
That sequestration of Sacramento from California proper, as well as from the rest of America, works beautifully for a film that is peculiarly preoccupied with the smallness and quietness of the teenage world before the explosion of social media in the mid-2000s. Time and again, Gerwig favours tight shots and close-ups that make the city feel much smaller than it actually is, pairing them with short scenes and dusky mise-en-scenes to suggest a wider world that never quite announces or articulates itself to Lady Bird and her friends. Only in the closing sequences, in which Lady Bird reflects upon the tremulous experience of driving in Sacramento for the first time, are we permitted anything resembling a more expansive evocation of the Californian capital, and yet by that point she’s managed to get out, telegraphing her nostalgic ruminations from the East Coast and a burgeoning career at what appears to be New York University. When we’re actually in Sacramento, however, every conversation exudes an inextricably private quality, and always seems to be taking place at some unbridgeable and unimaginable distance from the public passage of life, which isn’t exactly to say that the film is angsty, but that it yearns and strains towards a wider world that continually seems muffled and cushioned, trapping the characters in the kind of echo chamber exuded by older photographs, especially when transmitted digitally.
It’s not just the backdrop and dialogue that promulgate this profound quietness and smallness, however, since Gerwig embeds it into her aesthetic in so many ways that the lifeworld of the film appears to arrive fully-formed – as Paul Thomas Anderson noted, it feels more like a memory than a film – in a dazzling auteurist gesture that never once needs to insist upon its auteurism to make its presence felt. For one thing, Gerwig imbues all the action with the slightly cloistered, confined tightness of a stage play, with much of the action actually revolving around the rehearsal of a school play – appropriately enough, Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along, which traces a series of social connections from their dispersal and diffusion in the present to their formative, cohesive moments some twenty years before. Something similar happens in Lady Bird, whose final scenes in New York feel all the more momentous given how identified Gerwig would become with that city and its indie movie scene, to the point where this vision of Sacramento often plays – however improbably – as a kind of mumblecore myth of origins, the genesis and point of departure not just of Gerwig’s genius, but of an entire movement, moment and sensibility.
To that end, Gerwig peppers her cast with theatrical alumni, most notably Tracy Letts and Stephen McKinley Henderson, who plays Lady Bird’s drama teacher, Father Leviatch. In both cases, the actors’ presence, and their unspoken links to Broadway, are just as important as their actual performances, and indeed part of what allows them both to imbue two fairly introspective and minimally present characters with such an incredible pathos. More specifically, Letts’ status as a playwright of the Midwest also makes him feel like something of a bridge to Broadway, reiterating theatre as a point of connection to the wider world in the process. Conversely, Henderson’s dual role as priest and drama teacher works to fold these broader theatrical horizons back into the cloistered high school environment, and the peculiar chamber drama that is a Catholic education, with Lady Bird’s teachers and sacraments continually forcing her into odd, compact and tightly defined spaces and situations – forerunners of the microzones, intersitital minutiae and other forms of tiny furniture that would become such an integral part of the scaled-down mumblecore register.
Finally, subtending all these gestures of smallness and quietness, is the plaintive score by Jon Brion, whose work will forever be associated with the early 00s thanks to his collaborations with Aimee Mann on Magnolia, but which also works perfectly here as a period effect in its condensation and sequestration of the action to a series of melancholy, quizzical chamber pop motifs. As with Magnolia, that sound is inextricably associated with a sense of secrecy, and a fear of publicity, that precedes social media, even if social media reinvents and intensifies it in ways that are always on the threshold of the film’s consciousness as well. No surprise, then, that Brion’s refrains seem to find their natural counterpart in the closet epistemology that surrounds Lady Bird’s friend Danny, who she catches kisses another boy in the toilets after assuming that they were going steady, but who takes weeks and weeks to finally out himself to her, in an enormously moving scene that made me realise just how much this agonised, in-person disclosure belongs to a specific time and place, light years away from the click-of-the-button outing that haunts so many teen films about social media, and which has become increasingly dissociated from the question of sexual orientation in favour of broader ideas of transitional, emergent selfhood.
In other words, there’s something charming, touching and unspeakably soulful about the smallness of Lady Bird’s world, especially at a time when teen dramas of every genre are driven by an underlying horror at the pervasive reach of digital culture. That’s not to say that the film can’t envisage anything big, either, but that everything that makes Lady Bird’s life small also connotes something bigger, only to reiterate her fears of remaining in the same hushed pocked of unconnected space in perpetuity. Throughout the film, the depictions of Sacramento perpetually gesture towards a broader and more inclusive Californian sensibility, the evocations of Catholic education perpetually teeter on the verge of a divine providence, and Lady Bird’s theatrical career perpetually seems set to launch her into a career on Broadway and the East Coast, but the beautiful fragility of the film lies in just how tentative and tenuous these promises seem, especially amidst Lady Bird’s aimless amblings and restless wanderings through all the anonymous, indeterminate spaces now occupied – or erased – by social media. Indeed, part of what makes Lady Bird so true to its time is its taste for these spaces, which brim with some new form of social tissue and connective affect that lies just over the horizon, alternately framed in terms of emergent cell technology (phones are just coming in, although it’s considered edgy not to have one), and by way of the dispersed carpark meetups that seem to take up so much social energy.
I suppose, as some critics have noted, that beneath this immaculately crafted aesthetic lies quite a conventional coming-of-age story, even if some things don’t turn out quite as conventionally as expected – especially the initial conflict between Lady Bird’s two love interests, neither of whom turn out to be interested in her in the same way that she is initially interested in them. Yet Lady Bird manages to largely defy the tweeness and preciousness that is all but convention for this kind of exercise as well, with the story playing out against a melancholy, if never indulgently morbid, vision of downward mobility, as Marion and Larry struggle to come to terms with maintaining the modest house and lifestyle they invested in over a quarter of a century before. At the heart of this part of the film is an extraordinary performance from Laurie Metcalf, who hasn’t tended to be offered such burnished and understated roles, but has enjoyed something of a renaissance in the most recent part of her career. Once saddled with hyperactively charismatic renditions, here she shows how brilliantly she can work in a part in which her character has to deal with someone else’s (often) overbearing and (occasionally) obnoxious charisma, resulting in a performance that is on par with her thirty-minute monologue in Louis CK’s Horace and Pete.
The smallness of the film also feels most poignant when it comes to Marion’s character, and Metcalf’s performance, even or especially as it makes Lady Bird’s eventual move to New York all the more emotional, exciting and contagious in its sense of adolescent precarity and possibility. To her credit, too, Gerwig never idealises this move either, since it’s that very transition to a present we now recognise and inhabit – the New York scenes are shot much brighter and wider – that forms part of the melancholy of the film as well, and its sense of inextricably lost time. No surprise, then, that the one sustained mobile conversation in Sacramento proves momentarily disastrous to Lady Bird, nor that her only mobile conversation in New York only offers an incomplete resolution and catharsis, as she leaves a message on Marion’s answering service after reading the drafts of the letters she wrote to her – tacitly sent by her father – before making the trip to the East Coast. As someone who is almost exactly the same age as Gerwig, the tone of these last few moments rang unbelievably true to me, in what must be the definitive period film made about the late 90s and early 00s – a perfect evocation of our generation and its negotiation of this strange era.
As Paul Thomas Anderson observed, then, Lady Bird is more like a memory than a film, so fully formed and realised that it almost breeds the same kind of attachment generated by films at the time it depicts – a form of attachment that feels unbelievably remote and even alien a mere fifteen years later. Above its charm and warmth, the great gift of Lady Bird is its memory for the way teenagers once cherished and held films close to them in an effort to compensate for a smaller, quieter and less connected world, and for films themselves that begged to be loved, watched repeatedly, and pored over as and through actual physical objects – videos, posters and DVDs – until they existed primarily as a tactile, rather than a visual, form of attachment. That tactility – the sense of film as a comfort object – pervades Lady Bird more than any other film I’ve seen in the last decade, as if Gerwig were providing her teenage self with the film she always needed, with her debut screening in Sacramento, in front of friends and family, reportedly forming one of the most emotional experiences of her entire life. The result isn’t merely nostalgia for, but a living, breathing, nurturing invocation of, a time when movies had to be their own events in a more radical kind of way, and so were more eventful by nature, risking everything and occasionally producing what seems so rare in today’s media ecology but which Lady Bird somehow pulls off – an instant classic, and a film I felt I had lived and watched hundreds of times before I actually saw it.