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New film: Lady Bird

There’s something relatively unusual happening this week at Sacramento’s Tower Theatre – two screens are being reserved for a single movie. That wouldn’t be worthy of attention at the big box multiplexes, where three, four, or more screens often herald the opening of a new Star Wars movie or something of that ilk, but it’s rare in the smaller arthouse world. But then the film is unusual too.

Lady Bird” is the solo writing and directing debut of hometown actor and filmmaker Greta Gerwig. She’s both co-written and co-directed films before, and she has dozens of screen credits as an actress in both lead and supporting roles, but this is her first project entirely of her own making – and it’s a beautiful film.

It’s also a film garnering enormous attention and praise for Gerwig, especially, and her lead actors Saoirse Ronan (as the title character) and Laurie Metcalf (as Lady Bird’s mother). The film has been generating Oscar buzz since it’s first festival screenings, it opened last week to record per-screen averages in it’s first weekend of limited release, and has the remarkable distinction of a 100% “fresh” rating on the film review aggregation website rottentomatoes.com (meaning all 113 aggregated reviews at the time of this column being written are positive).

All of which may seem a little surprising at first when describing the film, because a basic synopsis is likely to sound quite simple. It’s a film about a teenager yearning to leave home and experience life and the world who, in the process of ultimately doing so, comes to better appreciate her home and family. But it’s all done so extraordinarily well and, upon deeper consideration, there’s much about it that sets it apart from other coming of age stories.

For starters, it’s written and directed by a woman, and focused primarily on a relationship between a daughter and her mother. The coming of age genre is so dominated by the sexual hi-jinks of teenage boys (“Porkies,” “American Pie,” etc.) that even the myriad amateur editors of wikipedia are comfortable with noting that coming of age films are typically about males. Make a similar film about teenage girls and the industry doesn’t quite know what to do with it (seriously, how many of you have seen “Coming Soon,” essentially an “American Pie”-like film but about girls – and with far more redeeming qualities?).

A closer film in terms of content is probably “Juno, ” written by a woman (Diablo Cody won the Oscar for the screenplay) and also about a teenage girl, but still directed by a man (as are most films). In “Juno,” Juno MacGuff (Ellen Page) is convinced that she’s cooler than her boring parents and her quiet geeky boyfriend Paulie (Micheal Cera) – before she realizes that it’s her parents and the Paulie’s of the world, not the Junos, who keep it together, who are the dependable ones.

But “Juno” is a loud film and she’s a loud character. It’s brash and in your face, with hyper-stylized dialog that drew criticism at the time (whether fair or not), by many, for not being the way that regular kids talk. The dialog of “Juno” is as intense and persistent as the sexual pre-ocupation of “American Pie.”

By comparison, “Lady Bird” is a quiet film. The same themes are present – the alienation, the exploration of identity, the sexual curiosity and desire – but they’re understated in a manner that makes them all seem so remarkably genuine. Where you might have watched one of those other films and thought it reminded you of somebody specific, you’re likely to watch “Lady Bird” and recognize aspects of either your own life or half the people you grew up with. It simply feels real and familiar – not necessarily in terms of circumstance but in terms of sentiment. Even before the acting and the directing come into play, both of which are wonderful, the writing is delightfully subtle and nuanced. A scene in which the under-appreciated and hard-working mother sits up late at night, taking in the seams of a thrift-store dress while her daughter sleeps, speaks volumes about parental love and devotion.

At a special local screening, for friends, family, crew, and invited guests, Gerwig specifically talked about wanting to write a film that paralleled the themes of romances, but between a mother and a daughter. For example, as she noted, to include that familiar scene wherein one character runs through an airport hoping to see a loved one, one last time, but to have those characters be mother and daughter rather than the more typical lovers in a romance.

Gerwig grew up in Sacramento and while there may be familiar elements, a few people who might recognize moments and many more who will recognize places, it’s not an entirely autobiographical story. But it does reflect Gerwig’s obvious love of Sacramento as a town and place. Indeed, many have described it at as “a love letter to Sacramento.” However that seems overly-simplistic, or perhaps understandably opportunistic in a city that often yearns for celebration. “Lady Bird” is more of a love letter to home, wherever home might be, and while Sacramentans may recognize their favorite store or ice cream haunt, others in other locations will likely be reminded of similar places from their own home towns. And, if in the process, they also wonder about Sacramento and how lovely it might seem, well that’s a bonus.

In that regard, the timing of the release is interesting, coming so soon after the recent “Brad’s Status,” a film supposedly set in Sacramento, with exterior sequences and even a scene at the airport all shot elsewhere. I walked away from “Lady Bird”with a strong desire to send tickets to the producers of “Brad’s Status.” But film financing is difficult and Sacramento does little to lure filmmakers, and even “Lady Bird” has interior shots filmed in Los Angeles for that reason.

As for the exterior scenes that will be most recognizable to local audiences, many in the local filmmaking community will likely find them familiar. For 18 years, Access Sacramento has facilitated short film production in it’s “A Place Called Sacramento” screenwriting and filmmaking competition, with Sacramento itself often feeling like an extra character in the films. But those 180 films have been seen by a tiny fraction of the number that have already seen “Lady Bird,” and the wide-release and prominence of a feature film like this elevate that exposure of our city by scales of magnitude. As somebody who has tried in a limited way to champion local filmmaking for many years, I am enormously grateful for this demonstration of Sacramento, not just as a beautiful city but as a viable filmmaking location.

For audiences anywhere, “Lady Bird” is a beautiful coming of age film featuring a central, meaningful love story between a mother and daughter. For Sacramento audiences, it’s all that and more. Enjoy it alongside a big screen audience uniquely positioned to appreciate the film – but don’t be surprised when awards season rolls around and others celebrate it just as loudly.

Disclosure: The author has met Ms. Gerwig multiple times in social settings and has several mutual friends and acquaintances.

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About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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