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‘Lady Bird’: on class and place

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“I live on the wrong side of the tracks” says Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson ( Saoirse Ronan) in the movie, “Lady Bird.” At first, the comment seems innocuous, a humorous quip that cements the utter quirkiness of our female protagonist. On a second reading, however, it gives more depth to the film; “Lady Bird” is a movie on place and class more than it is about the mother-daughter dynamic.

Much has been made in the flashy advertisements on television and social media about “Lady Bird” centering on the relationship between mother and daughter. The trailer’s beginning scene is of “Lady Bird” arguing with her mother (Laurie Metcalf) and ends with Ronan opening the car door and rolling out of the car.

The film has also been described as an unconventional take on the storied coming-of-age film. In his review in The New York Times, A.O Scott proclaims director Greta Gerwig has infused “one of the most convention-bound, rose-colored genres in American cinema with freshness and surprise.”

There is, perhaps, another way to look at “Lady Bird”: through the lens of class and socioeconomics. Beyond its examination of familial and adolescent relationships, Lady Bird is more about the relationship one has to a place: the people, the class divides, the experiences—and how one is shaped by those elements within that place.

In examining Gerwig’s masterful film, the audience gains a greater appreciation for not just the movie, but of where the characters come from, a true testament to Gerwig’s powerful writing and directing.

Acclaimed essayist Joan Didion once spoke of her hometown, Sacramento, saying “anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” These words are splashed onscreen as an introduction to the world of Lady Bird. Greta Gerwig, like Joan Didion, is from Sacramento.

Both Didion and Gerwig share a disillusionment with their California origins—yet both always circle back to it in their respective works, and Lady Bird is no exception. As the movie begins with the Didion quote about Sacramento, the film ends with Lady Bird in New York calling her mother and speaking of admiration of the hills of Sacramento. This last scene is a prime example of the film's transcendent interpretation of relationships

As Lady Bird leaves a voice message for her mother in New York, she expresses her appreciation for her mom and her home. She begins discussing navigating the hills of Sacramento, and the camera cuts to her driving, her monologue still being heard. There are cuts quickly interspersed on the same driving sequence, but who is behind the wheel alternates between Metcalf and Ronan. In this sequence, the viewer can easily posit that Lady Bird’s has become her mother, a nod to how we grow and become our parents.

By talking of the hills and in showing the two driving, Gerwig shows how mother and place are so intimately tied together. The cyclical nature is then abundantly clear: starting with Sacramento and then ending with it. The opening credits take place inside the church of Lady Bird’s Catholic school while the closing scene follows her to a church in New York as she is on the phone with her mom, reminding us that in a way we often end up where we started.

There are several other examples of the film’s commentary on class and place: one of Lady Bird’s favorite pastimes is going to open houses with her mother for properties they can only dream of affording. She lies about where she lives to fit in better with the ‘it’ crowd. Both of her boyfriends espouse a certain affluence that she comments negatively on. Most importantly she craves a life that is different from Sacramento and finds it almost unfathomable that her best friend would stay and go to community college.

Yet, through all her complaints about the place of her upbringing, she comes back to it at the end. It is through these musings that the phrase “the wrong side of the tracks,” uttered by our female protagonist, transcends comedy and takes on a whole new meaning.  Place in the film is all encompassing when paired with class, childhood and relationships. It is not a film about one subject in particular, but how all these different subjects mold us into who we become—and how we ultimately, despite our reservations, always find our way back.

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