It’s rare when a movie inspires not only delight but an intense sense of déjà vu.
But that’s how it felt to watch “Lady Bird,” the critically acclaimed new film written and directed by Sacramento native Greta Gerwig. From sunset vistas of the American River to the nighttime neon of the Crest Theater to stately brick mansions of the Fabulous 40s to earthy corner markets in Midtown, Gerwig’s camera lovingly portrays everyday scenes that could be taken from the Facebook pages of anyone who lives in or cares about Sacramento.
But don’t misunderstand: This is not a niche film made only for residents of the capital of California. The themes Gerwig explores with great insight and emotional resonance – the turbulence of teenage friendships, the complicated love between parents and children, the flush of first crushes, the leaving of home for the wider world – are timeless and universal.
Gerwig, 34, nails them so deftly that The New York Times, The Washington Post, Vanity Fair and other major publications are describing the St. Francis High School graduate as one of the most fascinating artists of her generation.
Her luminous coming-of-age story could have been set anywhere. But part of the film’s power is derived from the specificity with which it portrays her hometown. In fact, Sacramento is one of the critical characters in “Lady Bird.”
Gerwig’s begins her movie with a quote from Joan Didion, the greatest Sacramento writer of them all, who once penned these words when explaining California to her upscale readers in New York: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.”
At a Friday matinee at the Tower Theatre on the day “Lady Bird” opened in theaters nationally, the audience laughed at those words. I have lived in Sacramento 28 years this month and I laughed too because the quote was a compliment within a gentle gibe. It was true, if a little painful.
Sacramento is nothing like the coastal cities that define California in the minds of New Yorkers and other east-of-here Americans. Despite big-city problems of homelessness, violent crime and drug abuse, a neighborly sense of order remains at the heart of Sacramento.
That familiarity can feel like a warm blanket or a straitjacket. In “Lady Bird,” Sacramento is the place that characters both love and loathe. It’s the place they cling to but want to escape. It’s the place the lead character, a Catholic school student experiencing her senior year in high school, doesn’t fully understand until she leaves for a more glamorous metropolis she coveted.
Gerwig has bristled at people calling the film purely autobiographical. Nevertheless, parts of it undoubtedly were inspired by the student she was before leaving Sacramento for the East Coast in the early 2000s.
The lead character in “Lady Bird” is named Christine McPherson, and she is played with depth and humor by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (“Brooklyn,” “Atonement,”). Early in the film, Christine explains that Lady Bird is her “given name.”
“It’s given to me, by me,” she says.
National audiences will be moved by the character’s restless spirit, her fierceness, her compassion, her wit and humor. As a Sacramento resident, I saw her as emblematic of so many of exceptional young people who grow up in Sacramento and graduate from our high schools every year.
Lady Bird’s yearning for more cosmopolitan places and experiences is rooted in Didion’s gentle put-down of Sacramento. The character dreams of far-away cities that are more flashy and sophisticated than the modest place that has nurtured her in ways she doesn’t immediately realize.
One of the most beautiful scenes in the film is when an elderly nun, the target of a prank staged by Lady Bird, tells the precocious young woman that she writes beautifully. This comes as a surprise to the heroine of the film. But what comes as even more of a surprise to her is when the nun points out how – despite Lady Bird’s outward snark – she writes about Sacramento in a school essay with great affection.
If you live in Sacramento long enough, you understand how this city can get under your skin in unexpected ways. Often, young people who move away from here later learn they were positively shaped by a place that values community and decency, even if they initially didn’t realize it, as Gerwig’s lead character does. And many times, after living in more urbane places, these people chose to return home for good.
Mark Friedman, Sacramento Kings co-owner and Jesuit High School athlete, for example, left for Harvard. He worked on Wall Street. He came home. More recently, Ali Youssefi, the developer who is reshaping downtown, left for Dartmouth. He worked in San Francisco. He came home.
That story is repeated over and over, and it reminds us that while Sacramento may not have the name recognition of other cities, or perfectly fit the mold of the California ideal, we have something special here.
Sometimes people raised here leave and return. Sometimes they move away for good. But if you look at some of our most famous native sons and daughters – Didion, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, philosopher and activist Cornel West, state Attorney General Xavier Becerra, baseball great Dusty Baker and now, Gerwig – you can see how the city left an indelible imprint on their personalities.
Many of us feel that Sacramento’s identity has become more fluid in recent years. We argue over what the city should be and for what it should be known. Are we still a cow town? A government town? The farm-to-fork capital? The city of trees? As more Bay Area transplants arrive, are we becoming something else entirely?
Sacramento clearly means different things to different people, but Gerwig, like Didion, has taken the time and care to portray it as a place capable of provoking profound thought and unexpected insight.
Before she leaves for college, Lady Bird’s mother writes and re-writes her thoughts for her daughter but tosses them aside because she can’t find the words to express herself – just like many of us sometimes struggle to express our feelings about the city that has nurtured us. Lady Bird’s father rescues the crumpled papers and sends them to his daughter. She reads them, and they inspire an epiphany about her mother and her hometown.
Lady Bird has become a more self-aware young woman, still spirited, but raised right in a place where people care about her and think about her no matter how far away she is. In that moment, only two words come to her mind. They are the words that many of us feel for what Sacramento has given us: “Thank you.”