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Lady Bird finds its rhythm by the quick wit of its characters’ banter and succeeds especially because of its excellent performances. Director Greta Gerwig adds to characterization as she frames and arranges their relationships.

Lady Bird and her mother have a memorable argument at the thrift store, and it’s as if they are nearly submerged in a clothing rack; at a high school party, we first see Kyle (Lady Bird’s boyfriend), alone, in a wide-angle shot by the pool; for what seems like several minutes Lady Bird’s father refuses to face a heated argument, and we’re shown just enough of solitaire on his computer screen.

Gerwig regularly enhances dialogue by locating characters with one another and their environment in a way that emphasizes their interior states. These staged interior states can either be in concert, or contrast, with what’s being said, but either way they’re revealing. As it’s been said, what is inside is also outside.

Gerwig’s first effort is unmistakably a Jon Brion film. I mean this sonically, but it’s not simply that Brion’s compositions are characteristically his, though they are, and able to summon a longing you didn’t know was dormant. This film feels of a kin with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which I mentioned in the beginning of Part 1 yesterday) in more ways than soundtrack. We have a lead character who longs to forget about home.

Eternal Sunshine finds its pace in people trying to resist the memory erasing. Lady Bird achieves something of the same frenetic pace. Here, though, it’s that of a teenager whose childhood is fast fading, and she’s trying to catch up with what it all means. (Gerwig told cinematographer Sam Levy she wanted the film to “feel like a memory.”).

It’s only when Lady Bird has sex with cool kid Kyle that she realizes how easy it is for us to deceive ourselves and others with “a whole experience that was wrong.”

In order to receive the sort of attention from Lady Bird that he wanted, Kyle made her believe that he was also a virgin. After they have sex, he tells her he’s had sex with at least six other people. He even seems to believe his own version of what happened (as 9/11 coverage continues in the background on the television in his room).

Gerwig handles the aftermath of this revelation with special care. Lady Bird slowly descends the stairs. We get a brief shot of Kyle’s father: asleep in the chair, unaware of anything going on. Outside, though, Lady Bird’s mother is waiting to pick her up, and she’s available to console her daughter as she begins to sob into her shoulder.

She takes Lady Bird to do one of their favorite things together: Tour model homes that they can only dream of inhabiting together. They imagine living a life that isn’t theirs, but it’s in the context of a mother being attentive to her hurting daughter, of being true and longing for something better.

Near the end of the film (spoilers ahead!), when Lady Bird is at college in New York, she asks a boy if he believes in God. He says belief in God is ridiculous.

“People call each other by the names that their parents gave them, but they won’t believe in God!” she says.

When he asks Lady Bird her name, she says it’s Christine.

Gerwig’s directorial debut is also impressive for how Dardenne-esque it is in resisting the obvious or easy concluding scene. In the hands of a lesser director, this film might have ended with Lady Bird’s POV shot from the window seat as her plane ascends from Sacramento.

Likewise, a lesser film might have made Lady Bird’s decision to adopt her given name a simple triumph. Instead, Christine goes on to claim she’s from San Francisco and gets emergency room-drunk.

The next morning, after she realizes it’s Sunday, Christine walks to a nearby Catholic Church, and we get another shot of her ascending. This time Gerwig is attentive to her flight up the stairs of the church and frames the shot to place Christine in relationship to the choir. Christine cries.

The film takes place in Sacramento because Gerwig grew up there, and it may be an unintended connection that the city is named after the river deriving its name from Most Holy Sacrament. Even so, it’s a happy accident. The ascension motif has a sacramental quality, a view of life that denotes partaking of a heavenly reality in our midst.

The most Brion-infused moments form a collective memory for Christine and her mother about what it’s like to drive around and live in Sacramento. The time spent paying attention transforms Sacramento into a place that they can regard as home, a place that is truly theirs. Even in New York Christine will not leave Sacramento.

It’s fundamentally human to play roles and often these roles—these identity markers—are defined by our relationship to others. We are free to accept or reject who we are; this is the art of personhood. We are able to make something of ourselves in responding freely to the world.

As Robert Spaemann warns, though, be careful: “We cannot make a clean break between the way we construct ourselves and the way we really are.”

The question isn’t whether or not we will play a role, adopt an image, or become counterparts to others. Rather, the question is: Where do we find ourselves, and will we be true?

I suspect we can find our true selves in Sacramento, yes, but also in New York, or anywhere. The horizon of being true is formed where time and eternity meet, where we clothe ourselves with the wisdom passed down by generations of those who’ve come of age with love and attention.

Read yesterday’s post Lady Bird Ascending: Part 1 here


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Nick Olson

Nick Olson lives with his wife Eliza and their two boys in the foothills of Southern Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains. He teaches creative writing, loves literature and film, and believes cultural objects are spiritual things.

  • Leonard Kress

    A bit confused here. Lady Bird is cruelly racist towards her adopted brother. She abandons her best friend. She manipulates her depressed, laid-off father into going deeply in debt so she can attend some expensive mediocre college in NY–even though she’s really not interested in much of anything. (No concern for 9/11 and its aftermath, no interest in immigrants, farm workers, migrants, etc. that clearly surround her in Sacramento.) Finally, the priests and nuns seem out of a cheery and nostalgic 1950s after-school Catholic special. At the very least, she could have at least carried around a Joan Didion Book in her backpack….

    • Nick O.

      Thanks for chiming in, Leonard. All true, I think, yet I’m not sure where the confusion comes in. The titular character is selfish; that’s the point. The realization comes in the end. The film’s POV is for most of the film not reducible to the main character’s.

  • Sarah

    Lovely review, Nick. I have one minor clarification to add, though! The church that Christine stumbles into at the end of the movie is not a Catholic Church. It is actually an Episcopal Church- Church of the Ascension, to be exact. When I was in college I nannied for a family who lived on the same block as Ascension. I can’t help but wonder if Gerwig chose that particular church for the symbolism of its name.

    • Nick O.

      Thanks for this clarification, Sarah! That makes good sense in the context of the movie (as you note). Protestant mistake on my part!

      • Nick O.

        For what it’s worth, a friend from NY says that the exterior was Church of the Ascension, but that the interior might actually be a different church? Interesting. In any case, I think I (wrongly) assumed the church she went into was Catholic because she attended a Catholic high school. To we who grew up independent baptist, they seem rather similar. 🙂

        • Sarah

          That’s very possible! The state of the Episcopal church in NYC is pretty dismal, and I know they often use their buildings as a multipurpose space. Though I haven’t lived in NYC for almost 3 years, I’d know the facade of that church anywhere!

          Thanks for the reply, and the thoughtful review of Ladybird!

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