The Wrong Side of the Tracks

By Shelby Gray

Issue 010, Volume Three | Fall 2017


Greta Gerwig is no stranger to the coming-of-age genre. Labeled mumblecore “It girl,” she has been co-writing and starring in indie comedy-dramas for over a decade. She co-wrote and starred in Frances Ha (2012) and Mistress America( 2015), both directed by Nicholas Baumbach, as well as alongside Annette Bening and Elle Fanning in 20th Century Women (2016), directed by Mike Mills; and has received acclaim for her roles in Maggie’s Plan (2015), and more recently, Jackie (2016). This time, Gerwig is behind the camera and the script with a semi-autobiographical tale of growing up “on the wrong side of the tracks”: Lady Bird (2017).

Navigating the road to adulthood is a tumultuous and emotional experience for most, as is the case for Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, played by two-time Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan (Atonement (2007), Brooklyn (2015)).1 Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, premiered in Calgary as part of the 2017 Calgary International Film Festival’s Headliners Series in September. Now circulating through theatres, Lady Bird continues to receive universal acclaim for Gerwig’s screenplay and direction, with whispers of awards on-the-way for extraordinary performances from the cast.

Saoirse Ronan (left) and director Greta Gerwig (right) on the set of Lady Bird (2017). 

Photo Elevation Pictures.

It is 2002 in Sacramento, California, and Christine is in her last year of Catholic high school. Having unofficially re-named herself Lady Bird, she is a conventionally awkward, emotional, strong-willed teenager constantly at odds with her mother, Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf—ten-time Emmy award nominee, and 2017 winner of the Tony Award for Best Actress in a Play. An overbearing mother with a good heart, she tries to keep her financially struggling family together after her husband is laid off. Genuinely comical moments punctuate emotional scenes between Lady Bird and her mother, a well-rounded character who—while at times judgmental and very hard on her daughter—holds her best interests close to the heart. Between searching for a prom dress at the thrift store and sight-seeing mansions for sale, Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf play off of each other brilliantly, bringing to vivid life the complexities, vulnerabilities, and transparencies of a mother-daughter relationship.

Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig (2017). Still. 

STILL Lady Bird © 2017 Elevation Pictures. All rights reserved.

Piquant call-back moments of nostalgia, along with brick-sized flip-phones and the school’s overhead projector, disarm the audience with their familiarity and accuracy, until you may be left shaking with little sobs. Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” from 2002 shows up positively reeking of nostalgic innocence, juxtaposed in a rambunctious party scene. From Dazed and Confused (1993) to Mean Girls (2004), high school movie directors have used music, this language of rebellion—rock and roll, pop music—to place the viewer in a specific era and mood: one of uncertainty and rebellion. Music is one of the ways a high school student is able to rebel, one of the few things they have control over: a rite of passage.

Piquant call-back moments of nostalgia, along with brick-sized flip-phones and the school’s overhead projector, disarm the audience with their familiarity and accuracy.

The car similarly acts as a rite of passage, and a symbol of class. The popular girl character, Jenna, drives herself to school in an enormous SUV. They bond by pranking a nun’s car with the words “Just Married to Jesus.” Lady Bird herself does not have her own driver’s license and so surrenders her independence to other people and, like most teenagers, finds her own—hilarious—ways of rebelling. She spends a lot of time driving around town with the people in her life, listening to music or The Grapes of Wrath on audiobook. Whether she is jumping out of a moving vehicle or being dropped off by a Marxist ex, the relationship between Lady Bird and driving weaves a subtle narrative through the film that mirrors her oscillating desires to escape and approach: the adult struggle between independence and dependence, and class division.

Lady Bird, directed by Greta Gerwig (2017). Still. 

STILL Lady Bird © 2017 Elevation Pictures. All rights reserved.

The need to run away, to escape and be independent from others mixes with the desire for relationships, for sex, for friendship, for Lady Bird’s mother to talk to her. Where she earlier yells out her hatred for being alone, Lady Bird later finds herself happiest when driving alone, observing the landscape, the sunset. She finds herself to be “Christine.” Gerwig renders her dislike for California with beautiful and loving imagery of Sacramento, and she recalls the words of a nun who thoughtfully says: careful observation is something akin to love.

Tumultuous and emotional, Lady Bird captures the hilarity and awkwardness of all your firsts. Unlike many coming-of-age films over the years, Lady Bird is a realistic and contemporary portrayal of the struggle to maintain relationships into adulthood—between mother and daughter, friends and lovers. An intimately heartwarming portrait of a young woman trying beliefs out and feeling things for the first time, Gerwig considers with sensitivity questions of class, age, education, and believing the name your parents gave you.

Lady Bird is currently screening at select theatres across Canada.


  1. Saoirse Ronan and Greta Gerwig chat 'emotional truth' of 'Lady Bird' and Oscar buzz, interview by Chris Beachum, Gold Derby, accessed November 30, 2017. 

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