Sacramento, California, 2002. Christine “Lady Bird” Mc Pherson wants to be anywhere else but Sacramento. Anywhere that is slightly more “cultured” than the town she grew up in.
In Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, we follow the coming of age of Lady Bird, a young girl in her last year of high school. She’s ambitious, bold and insecure, like every teenager. The story unfolds her many attempts at being different and cool, reconciling who she is and who she wants to be. In one attempt, Lady Bird joins the school theatre group so she can mingle with the artsy students. When asked by the teacher if “Lady Bird” is her given name, she states confidently, with a tone of defiance “I gave it to myself, it’s given to me by me”. It’s a statement that says it all: this is who I am.
But this is not your typical teenage coming-of-age movie. Greta Gerwig also grew up in Sacramento, she’s a bit dorky herself and part of an exciting female-led indie scene. She brings a beautiful, sensitive and feminist perspective to the genre with a female character who's a bit of an anti-hero and not the typical female teenager you see in films. Lady Bird isn’t particularly popular in high school, she doesn’t live in a big house, she doesn’t really have a boyfriend and Gerwig challenges us to question whether these things really matter. Do they tell us anything about who Lady Bird is? In an interview with Rolling Stone, Gerwig said “I just don’t feel like I’ve seen very many movies about 17-year-old girls where the question is not, ‘Will she find the right guy’ or ‘Will he find her? The question should be: ‘Is she going to occupy her personhood?’” After reflecting on this she adds “And that is something that really annoys the shit out of me.”
The occupying personhood that Gerwig mentions is exemplified by the name that Lady Bird gives herself. It isn’t the name that she was born with, nor the name she uses by the end of the film. Part of adolescence is experimenting with personhood, and this is reflected through the film by its focus on her name.
The true essence of the film lies in the gentle depiction of Lady Bird slowly emerging from being totally self-absorbed to being more aware of what surrounds her and its value. We observe the character’s growing understanding of how the people and places of her life have shaped who she is. We’ve all been there. This realisation is universal, a moment of stillness and peace which Gerwig has portrayed wonderfully. For this, the film was received to critical acclaim and won two Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture and Best Actress (in a Musical or Comedy), as well as five Oscar nominations. Lady Bird was also chosen by the National Board of Review, the American Film Institute, and Time magazine as one of the ten best films of 2017.
Aside from the movie’s awards, it’s been enshrined on the internet by fans using the “given by me” line, fans who have sometimes simply posted it out of appreciation for the film and one of its most memorable moments, and sometimes to reappropriate its meaning and reuse it in new, comical ways. Some have mixed it with other properties to humorous effect, while it’s also been embraced as a rallying cry for Trans empowerment and sometimes, just to promote a watch party of the film on Twitter.
– Pauline Tranchant