Taking Cues From Her Sacramento Forebears, Didion and Ringwald, Greta Gerwig Adds to the Parsimonious List of Abashed Love Letters to the City

As Greta Gerwig’s directorial and solo writing debut, it’s only right that she should go for the most autobiographical subject possible: the California capital city in which she was raised. With only two truly “grandmotherly” sources representative of Sacramento success stories (i.e. getting out and becoming world-renowned), Gerwig draws on the powers of Joan Didion and Molly Ringwald for Lady Bird. The title card opening the film sets the tone for how outsiders who think they’re in the know about the purported amazingness of California are about to stand corrected: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” So said Joan Didion, Sacto mascot herself.

Christine “Lady Bird” (don’t ask if she’s paying a bizarre homage to Lyndon’s wife) McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is coming to the blessed end of her high school tenure at Immaculate Heart in Sacramento, a private school her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), insisted on sending her to after her brother, Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) “saw someone get knifed at Sac High.” As such, her search for a college that will take her away from the “soul-sucking” abyss of the so-called city finds her evermore at odds with Marion, who minces no words about the lack of budget for funding her dreams of getting into a liberal arts school in New York or some other East Coast town.

In keeping with the theme established by Frances Ha, Lady Bird ends up getting most of her fulfillment in life from her best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), an overweight fellow misfit who isn’t half as dissatisfied with being trapped in Sacramento as Lady Bird. But then, if you asked Lady Bird, no one possibly could be. She’s the only one, in her mind, with any sense of culture, any predilection toward having a wandering spirit.

Whiling away the days until some sign from God gives her admittance into an NYC school–in spite of not having the grades or extracurriculars–Lady Bird mostly passes the time with her lust over preppy, theater-loving (hint) Danny (Lucas Hedges) and, later, the more antithetical “bad boy,” Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).

In between arguments with her mother, Lady Bird’s father, Larry (Tracy Letts), is very much the modern answer to Paul Dooley in Sixteen Candles, Molly Ringwald’s wise, understanding dad who always encourages his daughter and somehow never says the wrong thing. And this is the thing about Sacramento that few people realize: the near Italianness with which how dearly people hold their family. It is the first and foremost obligation. This is why Didion references Christmas. No one who leaves Sacramento ever really leaves: they are beholden to their family to always–always–come back for Christmas, at the bare minimum. The Molly Ringwald parallel intensifies when we look to her other masterpiece, Pretty in Pink. Though Andie doesn’t live in Sacramento, like Lady Bird, she, too, is ashamed of literally living on the wrong side of the tracks, weirding Blaine (Andrew McCarthy) out when she says she neither wants to go home nor continue being out, initially trying to shrug off not wanting him to see where she lives by suggesting, “You can just drop me off by the tracks, it’s real close to where I live.”

This shame is felt just as intensely by Lady Bird, who lies to the most popular girl in school, Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), about living in the “Fab 40s” block of downtown instead of confessing her true address. Jenna nods in recognition, “My parents had their starter house there.” The sentiment of being somehow too lower class or too uncultured is something that tends to stick with Sacramentans seeking to abandon the calm waters surrounding the ship even after they’ve “made it.”

The specificity of Gerwig’s scenes and dialogue, from name checking “richie”–in the Jake Ryan sense–neighborhood Granite Bay (it’s where Jenna lives, in a house with a tanning bed) to asking to be dropped off at “the post office on J,” is what allows for the general resonance. The reason why the film has experienced such an effusive response even from those who have never been and will never go to Sacramento, “the Midwest of California.”

At the outset of Lady Bird, our mellowed heroine asks, “Do I look like I’m from Sacramento?” Marion replies, “You are from Sacramento.” It’s like this stink, aesthetic and aura we fear we can’t shake once we leave the confines. That others in more cosmopolitan cities will somehow figure us out.

Another little known fact about Sacramento is that when telling the average person that this is where you’re from leads to a glaze-over on the part of the receiver of the information, as exemplified when Lady Bird is at her first college party. “Where are you from?” her would-be suitor asks. She answers simply, “Sacramento.” Not quite understanding, he demands again, “Where?” Thinking better of it, Lady Bird alters her response to the easier, more palatable, “San Francisco.” Once again, it emphasizes a point about the ilk that departs Sacramento for a place like New York. It is a fear of being viewed as someone who has, in essence, just stepped off of a farm and has never read a book–an uncouth swine who can talk of nothing but the Kings, the state fair, plans for having a family–that kind of inane filler bullshit.

Gerwig’s gift for nuance elsewhere lies in terms of driving home the point that it’s 2002 without hitting us over the head with it. She ensures we remember with the subtle details, like the wearing of a puka shell necklace for her closeted gay character, Kyle’s insistence that Lady Bird is right not to have a cell phone because it’s a government tracking device and soon everyone will have one or the playing of Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me A River.” Musically, of course, Gerwig addresses the frozen in timeness of Sacramento by also featuring even then outdated “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band and “Hand in My Pocket” by Alanis Morissette. What’s more, Lady Bird only owns greatest hits CDs, a testament to her plebeian Sacramento taste.

Nearing the third act, Marion may shortly have to acknowledge that Lady Bird really is going her own way. To this point, Lady Bird’s reconciliation with leaving Sacramento is broken up by the camera flashing to all the most “glamorous” spots in town, limited to Gunther’s Ice Cream, the Tower Theater and the Crest Theater. The affection Gerwig feels for her hometown undeniably spills off the screen from the faint neon lights to give us an empathetic feeling of remorse for the fact that she might actually get what she wants: to leave this place. Side note: a Sacramento News & Review article did once throw the shade of a headline: “Sacramento: A Great Place to Leave.”

While many have heralded Lady Bird for being a coming of age film unlike any other, Gerwig has achieved something far more unprecedented than that: she’s made Sacramento relatable, and even visually digestible for a mainstream audience. And while it’s certainly not going to draw transplants in droves the way Los Angeles or San Francisco does, it might do something even more important than that: make those of us who escaped from it run just a little less faster from that arid valley and return now and again with just a little bit less of a grudge toward the very place that shaped us.