Lady Bird: A Love Letter to California Suburbia

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Lady Bird first caught my eye with its hugely positive reviews. Because of online critics and my fixation on A24, I decided to spontaneously watch Lady Bird during the final hours of Thanksgiving Day. Directed and written by the versatile Greta Gerwig, the film surrounds Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) and her life as a senior at a Catholic high school in Sacramento. Following the preface of a Joan Didion quote, Lady Bird and her mother are driving back home from a college road trip, just finished with listening to cassette tapes of The Grapes of Wrath. With tears in their eyes, the audience is prepared for the start of a solely melancholic scene. But as Lady Bird begins to lament her monotonous life in the so-called “Midwest of California,” her mother chastises her for being ungrateful to her upbringing. The two begin to argue, evolving the ordinary car ride into farcical chaos. Accurately labeled a comedic drama, the first scene alone procured uncomfortable laughter from the few people scattered throughout the theater. The featured relationship between Lady Bird and Marion McPherson is the tumultuous, mother-daughter dynamic that people identify with, the affectionate banter thoroughly managing to tug on everyone’s heartstrings. I, too, thought of the snarky comments and petty accusations I’ve fueled against my own mother.

However, it was the setting of the film, not the critically acclaimed relationship, that decidedly made me so emotional. While Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother is a moving aspect of the film, it was the preceding feature of Joan Didion’s quote that occupied my post-cinema reflections: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” While walking out of the cinema and into the silence of my own hometown streets, I felt baffled, almost self-conscious. This was a seemingly simple film—every establishing shot was placed to provide us with a glimpse into ordinary, California suburbia. With stills of picturesque, two-story homes, the local ice cream shops and diners, and the characteristic infrastructures of the capital city of Sacramento, I couldn’t help but wonder why this unembellished film about the arid Central Valley, a county approximately 400 miles away from my own county, made me so sentimental.

Both Joan Didion and director Greta Gerwig grew up in the city of Sacramento, a connection that Gerwig describes as “spiritually seismic.” Didion, the celebrated American writer and journalist who defined American subculture, often argued against the mainstream pretense of Californians living in a hedonistic fantasy—to an outsider, California was either flamboyant San Francisco or glamorous Los Angeles, with nothing in between. Didion defended her hometown and its generational history, separating the culture of Central California from the urban generalizations. It is this shared love for hometown suburbia that marries Didion’s commentary to Gerwig’s storytelling.

I grew up in the beachside suburbs of Los Angeles county, a metropolitan area starkly different from the dry districts of Sacramento County. But despite this regional disparity, the obstacles Lady Bird faces were eerily similar to my own adolescent experiences. The people who will watch this movie will most likely see themselves in Lady Bird’s encounters with commonplace high school situations: the first boyfriend, the awkward school dance, the quagmire that is college applications. But I felt especially rooted to this film because of the shared setting of California suburbia. Whether it be visiting the local diner after a tech rehearsal of the school musical, watching friends smoke for the first time along a darkened cul-de-sac, or just feeling utterly disassociated from the rest of “real” California, the small moments of Lady Bird seemed to be clipped from my very own teenage timeline. In the final sequence of the film, Lady Bird (now Christine in college) navigates the blocks of New York City to follow the familiar sound of chiming bells—the presence of a Catholic church. Beforehand, Lady Bird desperately wanted to escape the Central Valley. But without realizing, she is never without Sacramento. Like Didion and Gerwig, Lady Bird looks back at her hometown with nostalgic longing, for it is her upbringing that has made her into who she is. Gerwig’s poignant celebration of California suburbia is what ultimately brought me to reflect, remember, and reminisce.

Leah Whang