How Lady Bird succeeds as Greta Gerwig’s love letter to Sacramento

The odds are incredibly good that I saw the real Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig, around town in the formative years that inspired her much-lauded love letter to our shared home. As an attendee of a public high school near the real life inspiration of Lady Bird‘s “Immaculate Heart”, and a theater arts student at the local community college, I learned watching the film that we had a lot of similar interests, and opportunities to unknowingly share experiences and acquaintances.

In 2002, when Lady Bird takes flight, I was working two jobs and sharing a mid century house in the Bohemian Villiage neighborhood of East Sacramento with friends. One of my jobs was at a video rental chain, where Gerwig might have gained an appreciation for classic and more current films. The other job was at a coffee shop across the film’s featured J street bridge from the all girls Catholic high school, Saint Francis, where Greta Gerwig attended. I can remember that in the cobalt blue pre-dawn light dozens of young ladies in uniform would wait for their non-fat latte’s, and they probably still do.

After a decade of honing her craft in collaborative independent films, Greta Gerwig invites the world to sample the unique flavor of Sacramento in her solo directorial and writing debut of Lady Bird. Her artistic achievement is currently receiving acclaim as the whole of Hollywood cries out for finer focus on female filmmakers, while her sweet and humorous portrayal of California’s Capitol city has transformed both Gerwig and her character of Lady Bird into hometown heroines.

Greta directing our young cast.

Lady Bird tells a lighthearted and affecting story of home with Saorise Ronan, who intuitively portrays a girl named Christine McPherson. She’s a rebellious teenager struggling to find her way through a trying relationship with her mother (Laurie Metcalf), high school, and aspirations beyond the infuriating and amusing surroundings that shape her. Christine has given herself the name of “Lady Bird”. She finds herself caged in by Sacramento, but after seeing more of the world, she comes to appreciate the place she calls home, the love of her family, and her birth name.

In the opening scene Lady Bird asks her mother if she looks like she’s from Sacramento, and natives of California’s Capitol city can attest that yes, she is unfailingly familiar. Lady Bird’s sense of humor and rapid fire dialogue is a flavor of weird that Sacramento immediately identifies as its own. With her strawberry Kool-aid hair rinse, layered charm necklaces, and thrifted damsel style, Ronan is a vision in self styled found fashion that Sacramento’s youth culture glorifies.

The films locales are nearly all Sacramento landmarks that natives hope will never die, and Greta Gerwig honors them fondly. The Rose Garden of McKinley Park is a picturesque backdrop for an unspoken tradition among Sacramento young adults who revel and romp around their local parks in the dead of night. And you can actually buy a raunchy magazine and a scratcher ticket from the very same gentleman who stands behind the counter at the American Market, where Lady Bird celebrates her eighteenth birthday.

Lady Bird works after school at the New Helvetia Cafe, a Midtown coffee house that closed its doors in 2003 and a pricey restaurant now lives in its footprint. With the global attention that Gerwig’s loving portrayal of Sacramento’s vistas and vibe is receiving, the city is sure to see more of the same crawl toward corporatized capitalistic success that Lady Bird tells us isn’t always the most accurate measure of happiness. This message seems a particular plea for Sacramento to slow down and love its smaller players while carefully considering its bids to attract large development.

The preferred way to spend an afternoon in Midtown, outside the corner market.

Saorise Ronan’s character of Lady Bird isn’t really all that much like Greta Gerwig was as a young woman. Lady Bird is tactless and has a penchant for drama, whereas Gerwig admits that she never invented a name for herself and waited for the car to stop moving before jumping out. But the characters and the story of Lady Bird isn’t specific to Sacramento or even girls. People move away from home and later learn to appreciate it, everywhere. The universal humanity of Gerwig’s film and the characters is what makes the movie so apealling no matter where you might be from.

I shared a lot of Lady Bird‘s feelings about my home town and school assemblies when I resided in the outer limits of its suburban sprawl as a teenager. A slow death in Sacramento felt inescapable and mind-numbing. But like her own transformative experience in New York, I moved away and returned as a young woman to think fondly of the people and scenery Lady Bird so perfectly frames. It’s canopied lanes of mature trees, the pastel painted sky over the two rivers, and the energy portrayed by the characters in Greta Gerwig’s cinematic postcard are all treasured friends of this native Lady Bird.

Image Credits: Scott Rudin Productions, Entertainment 360, IAC Films

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