LADY BIRD (Cert. 15), now on DVD/Blu-ray, is a Growing Up Catholic sort of film, but more like Chekhov’s Three Sisters (“To Moscow, to Moscow”) meeting The Wizard of Oz. This is Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut. Her own best-remembered acting role was in Frances Ha (2012), in which she played someone who could well be an older and wiser version of this new film’s teenage lead.
Although it is autobiographical, Gerwig says that none of the things in the film happened, “but it’s all true”. This subtle, tender, and funny portrait of a quirky young girl striving to spread her wings and fly away won several Oscar nominations earlier in the year.
Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn, Atonement) plays Christine McPherson, who calls herself Lady Bird. It’s 2002. Nuns and pop stars can change their names. Why, then, oh why can’t I, she argues. It would be a start to discovering her true identity — as would leaving home (Sacramento, California) for somewhere over the rainbow: New York, to be precise.
Much else happens in this year-long account of adolescent angst. She and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) are either dewy-eyed, listening to a Grapes of Wrath audio book, or fighting cat and dog over future plans. One feels sorry for this overworked mother with an unemployed husband and mercurial daughter. Through a series of firsts — first audition, first sexual experience, first driving of a car, first day of the rest of her life — we get to know Lady Bird. It takes rather longer for her to come to her first realisation that life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.
Lady Bird kicks over many traces, but adherence to Christianity remains well-nigh intact. The soundtrack punctuates her daily life with bursts of sacred music. The nearest that she gets to sacrilege is munching communion wafers while talking about sex with her best friend. Unlike films that portray Roman Catholicism as oppressive and abusive, this is a model of even-handedness. By and large, teachers are likeable and encouraging: just as well, because when a nun chastises Lady Bird’s friend for wearing a short skirt, they vandalise her car.
On the other hand, Fr Leviatch (Stephen McKinley Henderson) is humane and creative, directing Lady Bird in a production of Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along. It is hardly a coincidence that this particular musical is about someone from obscure beginnings (like Ms Gerwig) who becomes prominent in the entertainment business (like Ms Gerwig).
As for the “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic” theme, the film ends with a neat twist to this. There is a feeling throughout that, even if there comes a time when Lady Bird does leaves her Californian equivalent of Kansas, she will end up realising, like Dorothy, that there’s no place like home. There is something sacramental about Sacramento.