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Did Greta Gerwig attend a Catholic school? That’s the question I had after screening Gerwig’s directorial debut Lady Bird, a coming-of-age story of a one-of-a-kind high-school senior, Christine, who calls herself Lady Bird (the great Saoirse Ronan). Nuns warn teenagers at a dance to “leave 6 inches for the Holy Spirit,” a phraseology from deep within Christian subculture. Turns out Gerwig did in fact attend Catholic school and has warm memories of it, which shows in the portrayal of Lady Bird’s forbearing teachers in this film.
The very funny Lady Bird—a rare film from a female writer and director—is a sweet story despite the main character's prickly dysfunction. The infuriating teenager tries every unscrupulous means to escape her working-class life, and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who has fully embraced the role of parental bad cop, does all she can to bring Lady Bird’s lofty dreams back to earth.
In the first scene mother and daughter are happily concluding Grapes of Wrath on audiobook together in the car when a conversation begins about where Lady Bird will go to college and how the struggling family will pay for it. The ensuing argument ends with the teenager throwing herself out of the moving car. At the time of the filming Metcalf had a child Lady Bird’s age, according to Gerwig, so she understood her character’s parental frustration—and failures—a little too well. That scene is the entire movie in a nutshell.
"It’s secretly the mother’s story,” said Gerwig. "Somebody’s coming-of-age is somebody else’s letting go."
Much of the familial tension is a result of Lady Bird’s longing to be in a higher stratum of society. Her dad (Tracy Letts) loses his job, her mom has to work extra shifts, and they live on the wrong side of the tracks in Sacramento. Gerwig mentioned how most people in America describe themselves as middle class, a sign that Americans are uncomfortable with the idea of class. Lady Bird is painfully aware of her place in society and wants to be someone else: rich, cultured, and intellectual.
“Is that your given name?” a teacher asks Lady Bird at one point. “Yeah,” Lady Bird says. “I gave it to myself. It’s given to me by me.”
Heavy caution is in order: The movie is rated R, all for instances of the teenager’s dissatisfaction turning to rebellion. There’s language, sexual content, and as the Motion Picture Association of America puts it, “teen partying.” Lady Bird, as a way to increase her status, is busy losing her virginity to a guy who reads Howard Zinn and who insists as he lounges by a pool that he is “trying not to participate in our economy.”
In another scene Lady Bird mocks an abortion survivor who comes to talk at her school, but that doesn’t come across as a political point so much as another instance of her rebellion. Similarly Lady Bird doesn’t want to take communion or participate in any of the Catholic aspects of her school.
This is a story of all the kindness around Lady Bird—from her parents, teachers, and best friend—that she can’t seem to see or appreciate. In an interview with America magazine Gerwig elaborated that she wanted a story of an annoying teenager who experiences “grace … wholly unearned.” The film will make you laugh more than it will make you think, but it’s a warm story about what it takes to get a difficult teenager to the point of gratitude.