Perhaps you’ve heard the hype already: Lady Bird was recently named the “best reviewed movie of all time” by Rotten Tomatoes, a designation that’s more than a little bit misleading (it means that Lady Bird has the longest ever streak of positive reviews on the review aggregator, giving it a perfect score across more reviews than any other movie; but Rotten Tomatoes counts lukewarm reviews as equally as positive as rave ones). Still, it’s impressive.
I didn’t come away from Lady Bird raving. It never wowed or stunned me, but it was full of small, beautiful surprises that kept its relatively simple story constantly fresh and enjoyable. And I realized partway through the movie that Lady Bird is a love story about our changing relationship with those things that are given to us in childhood: it’s a remarkably honest love song to place, family, and religion.
It’s the “giving season,” I suppose. We’ve eaten our requisite fill of turkey and mashed potatoes, and now we’re scrambling to find presents for family and friends, all the while trying to make time to remember why we give things in the first place.
This is why Lady Bird is the perfect holiday movie; ultimately, Lady Bird asks us to reckon with what we’ve been given by our parents and by the places we grew up in. It’s a testament to the film that it places this universal, essential reckoning so deftly in between its hilarious scenes of awkward teenage dating and the mishaps that come with trying out new identities in high school.
This theme is probably at its most obvious with Lady Bird’s name; she announces that Lady Bird is her given name, “given to me, by me,” in place of her parent’s name for her, Christine. Lady Bird insists that even her parents call her by her new name, as she attempts to assert her own personhood and free herself from her family’s lower-middle class status. She can’t understand why everybody else just accepts as a central part of their identity a name their parents gave them.
Similarly, Lady Bird can’t wait to get out of Sacramento, which she describes with scorn as “the Midwest of California.” She’s so preoccupied with hating Sacramento that it comes as a shock to both the audience and Lady Bird when the head nun at Lady Bird’s high school praises Lady Bird’s college essay, commenting, “You must really love Sacramento.”
Lady Bird isn’t sure how to handle this revelation, but she says, “I guess I just pay attention.” The nun’s response is beautiful: “Has it occurred to you that they might be the same thing? Love, and attention?”
This was the point in the movie that I realized the movie itself, like Lady Bird’s college application essay, is secretly director Greta Gerwig’s love song to Sacramento.
You know that a film has succeeded, in one way or another, when it manages to make you homesick for a place you’ve never been. Lady Bird does that with Sacramento, for me— an impressive feat, really, because the film actually shows so little of the city. It’s mostly shot inside Lady Bird’s school and her home, with a few driving scenes and visits to other people’s houses; there are no sweeping shots of the whole city and it gives the viewer no sense of orientation in terms of where you are in the city and where, for instance, the tracks are that Lady Bird says she’s “on the wrong side of.”
And it feels hardly coincidental that her city’s name contains the word “sacrament.” Catholicism forms the apparently unremarkable backdrop to Lady Bird’s life, much like Sacramento. But, without giving the ending of the movie away, religion plays a part in Lady Bird’s return to herself at the end of the movie.
It’s a simple concept, really, that growing up is the act of reckoning with the things that you’ve been given. You never realize as a child that you’ve been given so much—your parents try to teach you, of course, by making you write thank-you notes for your Christmas gifts and to your teachers at the end of the year, but you think of this as mere politeness—it’s hard to have a true grasp of gratitude as a concept when you are seven years old.
Now that I understand gratitude, it’s easy to turn this reckoning, in the holiday season, into the world’s greatest guilt trip—more of a guilt voyage, really, across the vast oceans of kindness that people have shown me, kindness that’s continued to move in, reliably as the tide, despite my best efforts to prove myself undeserving of it.
What Lady Bird does so well, though, is show that it’s more complicated than that. Lady Bird’s mother wants Lady Bird to feel indebted to her parents for everything that they’ve done for her; like me, she wants Lady Bird to experience the weight of guilt and to convert that into obedience and conformity.
But the movie suggests that both positions are flawed; Lady Bird’s bid for complete independence and her mother’s plea that she play her scripted role in the family are both sympathetic but misguided dreams, and the entire movie is about finding that messy, complicated in-between that allows us to love what we’ve been given while striking out on our own, with that singular love of oneself that Joan Didion described as being strong enough “to give us back to ourselves.”