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Greta Gerwig hones fine, female gaze in coming-of-age story ‘Lady Bird’


Like her main character in her new movie, “Lady Bird,” writer/director Greta Gerwig grew up in Sacramento, Calif., had aspirations as an artist and moved to the East Coast for college. And she says a lot of her worldview is reflected in the film in various ways.

But it’s not autobiographical in any strict sense, she says. “In a funny way, I was the opposite of Lady Bird. I really colored inside the lines. I was kind of a people-pleaser and a rule-follower, and I like to get gold stars,” she says.

“I never dyed my hair bright red or made people call me by a different name,” as does Lady Bird, whose real name in the movie is Christine. “I never did any of the wilder things that Lady Bird does. But the real heart of the story feels like very close to my heart, and the story being about home and how that home comes into focus only as you’re leaving. You realize how much you love it as you’re leaving, and that’s something I understand and think is pretty universal.”

“Lady Bird,” which opens Friday in Austin, can be seen in various ways, depending on your personal outlook. But it’s fundamentally a mother/daughter story, as Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) tries to come to terms with her opinionated, strong mother (Laurie Metcalf).

As with most good movies, there’s more going on than initially meets the eye. Gerwig draws on Greek myths, biblical tales, religious notions, the works of Flannery O’Connor and other metaphysical inspirations to tell the story of a young woman’s senior year at a Catholic high school.

She’s a theater nerd. She wants to lose her virginity. She longs to be considered unusual and artistic. And she’s basically trying to come into her own as a person, as we all have to do.

But Gerwig does something different with the script. She says she wanted the movie to show a young woman who’s trying “to inhabit full personhood.”

“I think generally movies about young women are about being validated as a person by being chosen in love, by a boy … and I feel like there are a lot of movies about young men were the question is their personhood, but few movies where that’s done for young women, without it being confirmed through a guy.”

And in a way, Gerwig is trying to lead Lady Bird toward a moment of grace, of full personhood, much as O’Connor did in such short stories as “Good Country People” and “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”

“I love Flannery O’Connor,” Gerwig says. “She wrote these amazing journals when she was 19 or 20 years old, and they are such incredibly spiritual journals. And she has one passage that I just love so much. She says, ‘God, please make me a mystic, and immediately. You know I am a cheese, but you can do anything.’ And it’s just the most wonderful portrait of the artist as a young woman, and also the depth of feeling that she has a teenager who wants to be an artist and a writer so badly, and she wants to be holy, but she feels like she’s lazy and kind of a cheese. I love that.”

Gerwig is talking about O’Connor’s “A Prayer Journal,” which was first published in late 2013 after the author’s writings were discovered among O’Connor’s papers in Georgia in a Sterling composition notebook. It was published by Farrar, Straus Giroux and offers a glimpse into the life of a healthy O’Connor before battling lupus, which killed her at 39.

“Grace is a big theme for me,” Gerwig says. “I have metaphysical interests. I have an interest in the ontology of the world, and goodness and grace are very interesting to me.”

And this is where the movie “Lady Bird” comes in, because it breaks ground by being so humane, especially in dealing with mother/daughter relationships.

“The sheer amount of obviously terrible things in the world is overwhelming, but there is a tremendous amount of good, and I’m always amazed by what’s in people, both the darkness and the light,” she says. “In some ways, the darkness is what you see all the time and is talked about, but the other side is equally present, and I love people who manage to show or do that.”

It would spoil the movie to pinpoint the moment of grace for Lady Bird. But it’s inextricably tied to her realization that she needs to move ahead with her life, while saying “thank you” and accepting the gifts of her background, even though she has rebelled against them for most of her teen years.

As Gerwig puts it, Lady Bird isn’t done with her home life just because she gets on a plane and leaves Sacramento. So Gerwig tries to use a Quaker concept of a “way opening” and a “way closing.” The way opening makes you look at the next steps in your life, while the way closing is realizing where you came from and that you can’t go back.

It happens to anyone who has left home and pursued life in a distant town. And it happens to many who don’t leave but must still come into what Gerwig calls full personhood.

The road ahead isn’t going to be easy for Lady Bird, especially when you see her doing something similar to what the disciple Peter did when he denied he knew Jesus three times “before the rooster crows,” following the Last Supper.

Gerwig says she’s not a practicing Catholic, but she is moved by the universality of such stories – that we live these stories, even if we don’t realize it at the time.

The reason that “Lady Bird” is special: It captures those feelings, the angst of maturing, the uncertainty of the future, and the wistfulness of knowing that you can’t go home again. All you can do is try to love your family – and to accept their love, in all of its messiness.

“I am interested in those falling-apart moments and then recognizing the moment when you realize it’s OK,” Gerwig says. “And that’s when you’re not staying in your wretchedness but pulling yourself up and saying, ‘All right. This is what it is.’”

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