‘Lady Bird’ is much more than a love letter to Sacramento

'Lady Bird' director and Sacramento native Greta Gerwig (right) with actress Saoirse Ronan. [Photo courtesy A24]

One of our own sits across from Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, fielding questions from one of the preeminent modern interviewers on NPR.

This is a big deal for Sacramento’s People Born and Raised Wikipedia page. The 34-year-old actor, writer, director Greta Gerwig tells Terry two things she knew with certainty about her latest film, Lady Bird: it would be a mother-daughter story and it would be set in her hometown, Sacramento.

She’s playing it cool on-air in mentioning us–we, however, cannot shut up about seeing Gunther’s in a film.

Sacramento is not an afterthought by any means in Lady Bird. It is also never an idle punching bag, waiting for the inevitable fist. It is exactly as it should be. Segregated in class struggle, full of teenagers dying to escape and glowing with neon signs. Casually mocked, but deep down adored. Cool.

Thank you, Greta. You kept it real.

Now for the actual reasons to see Lady Bird, its effortless story and characters.

Lady Bird finds a lower middle-class family in Sacramento, California in 2002. At the center of the story is Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a senior at a Catholic high school. As a middling student, she dreams of escaping to a place with culture like New York City. But her mother, Marion McPherson, played by Laurie Metcalf, is quick to point out it takes grades to overcome out-of-state tuition.

Jobs are disappearing, specifically Christine’s dad’s, but no one speaks the word “recession.” Her 20-something brother is still in a Hot Topic phase, full of facial piercings, as is his girlfriend, whom the McPhersons have taken in after she was kicked out of her parent’s home. Everyone has to work, or find work, and bills are still a big concern. There is a weight on every McPherson’s shoulder. For some it leads to stress and pressure, for others it inspires dreams of escaping across country, or at least to a mansion in East Sac.

Gerwig’s screenplay and direction are the foundation in Lady Bird’s most arresting moments. Her writing and direction both flex with subtlety. They leave plenty of room for the performances she gets from Metcalf and Ronan. Their mother-daughter relationship is at its most tenuous place, senior year of high school, and neither actress lets you forget what that was like—the passive-aggressive arguments under each other’s breaths while shopping for school clothes, the untethered and hopped-up-on-hormones arguments that can sail out of control and lead to daggers we wish we could take back.

Laurie Metcalf is having one helluva second (or is it third?) act. For far too long she’s remained, to me, Jackie Harris, the smart-mouthed neighbor in Roseanne. That is until two years ago when she floored me with her guest appearance on Louis C.K.’s Horace & Pete, a performance that got her a Primetime Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series. Earlier this year she took home a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play for her role in Lucas Hnath’s A Doll House, Part 2. It won’t be surprising if her performance in Lady Bird continues to garner Metcalf with accolades and nominations.

Saoirse Ronan, as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, is going to turn heads—at 23 she commanded that role—but Metcalf is going to make every daughter want to text her mother as the credits roll. I’m a son and I still have difficulty thinking about certain scenes without feeling as though Metcalf studied my mom for the role.

If there’s one flaw in Lady Bird, it’s turning a film about one of the most difficult times in a family’s life, high school graduation and leaving the nest, into a love letter to Sacramento. Will I graciously accept Gerwig’s eye for Sacramento’s beauty over the dozen marketing videos produced in the past five years? Hell fucking yes. Did I feel weird when Lady Bird, now deciding to accept her birth name Christine, calls home and says (paraphrasing), “Hey, Mom, you know that feeling when you’re driving in Sacramento?” Again, yes.

Gerwig captures all the details that make us us. Every teenager can’t wait to get out. When Christine gets to college and a boy at a party doesn’t comprehend Sacramento and she quickly replaces it with San Francisco so he gets it. The inside jokes about how so-n-so hangs out at The Pavilions. The elitism of Granite Bay and East Sac. The literalness of a wrong side of the tracks that references the railroad that divides Midtown. The hellas.

None of it is delivered with cheeky repugnance or comedic exaggeration. It is precisely as is. Which makes it the highest compliment ever offered to this city. But something tells me Marion McPherson didn’t need the apology voicemail from her daughter to include an anecdote about driving through Sacramento. She just needed her daughter’s forgiveness and understanding. And that’s also a little heartbreaking, to wedge in one more compliment to a place that has already been complimented endlessly in 93 minutes.

Which brings us back to Gerwig sitting across from Terry Gross, not talking endlessly about her favorite places to eat in Sacramento, but talking about how women fight, the mother-daughter dynamic and the origin of the film’s name, a Mother Goose nursery rhyme (Ladybird, ladybird fly away home / Your house is on fire and your children are gone). The point is, stay focused on story and the characters. Movies are made for people, not cities.


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Blake Gillespie
Blake Gillespie is a freelance journalist based in Sacramento. He's a former co-owner of Impose Magazine and has contributed at the Sacramento News & Review, the Sacramento Bee, the East Bay Express, Comstock's and Vice.com. His decade-plus of experience is in music, arts, sports, political and culture coverage.