As any so-called adult knows, adolescence is defined by cultural hallmarks.
The song that blasted at prom. The television show everyone rushed home to watch. The expression too many people were using. The books your classmates read to seem cool. The alcohol that seemed so worldly. The silly fads that landed with loud thuds because, as a teenager, almost everything lands with a loud thud.
“Lady Bird,” the new coming-of-age movie written and directed by Greta Gerwig, offers a treasure trove of cultural hallmarks. Every event in the titular character’s life is defined by a trend reflective of Sacramento ― and the United States at large ― circa late 2002 and early 2003. Some, like a discussion about Alanis Morissette’s “Hand in My Pocket” and a school production of the Stephen Sondheim musical “Merrily We Roll Along,” are admittedly timeless. Others belong distinctly to the moment depicted in the film.
During an interview with Gerwig last week, I asked the filmmaker to annotate seven references from “Lady Bird.” (Warning: This rundown contains an image of Playgirl magazine. Yes, there are penises in it.)
Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy
The first school dance Lady Bird attends in the movie is Western themed ― a “cowboy dance,” as Gerwig described it.
“Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy,” the block letters imprinted on pink T-shirts that a smattering of preppy girls wear to the event, was the first allusion I ticked off. “I did not expect that one,” Gerwig exclaimed when I mentioned it.
“That actually literally did come from shirts I saw some people wear at a cowboy dance,” she said. “That’s direct cribbing from life.”
Were a lot of people in Sacramento wearing “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” shirts in 2002, about two years before the Big & Rich tractor-chant jam became a country-music sensation?
“No, just to the cowboy dance,” she said. “There was one particular cowboy dance that the popular girls would wear those shirts to. And the rest of us wore overalls.”
A People’s History of the United States
Out one night with her bestie Julie (Beanie Feldstein), Lady Bird spots a lanky, long-haired stud (Timothée Chalamet) playing guitar in a rock band ― the ultimate fantasy. He’s Kyle, a senior at the all-boys Catholic school that attends chapel every morning alongside the students from Lady Bird’s all-girls campus.
After starting a job at a café ― she tells a queen bee (Odeya Rush) her mom wants her to learn responsibility, but she also needs the money ― Lady Bird spots Kyle reading on the patio outside. As she approaches him for an afternoon flirtation, we see he’s reading A People’s History of the United States, the famous 1980 book that reframes America’s past as one of mass oppression at the hands of elite bigwigs.
″A People’s History of the United States was actually a very big book for me,” Gerwig said. “I read it in high school, and I felt like my mind was really blown by it. I think the truth is I read it because it’s referenced in ‘Good Will Hunting.’ Matt Damon says to Robin Williams, ‘Well, you know you read all those books? You know what you should really read? Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States. That’ll really knock your socks off.’ And I, being the nerd that I was, was like, ‘Well, I will go get that from the public library!’ That’s a little insight into what I was enjoying back then, and the kind of person I was.”
“That’s hella tight”
When Lady Bird meets Kyle a second time, in a parking lot where the hip kids hang out during school, the popular girl whose attention Lady Bird craves informs Kyle that Lady Bird just graffitied a nun’s car with the words “Just Married to Jesus.”
“That’s hella tight,” he responds in his cool-guy monotone.
As a slang word, “hella” has roots in Northern California, where “Lady Bird” is set. It played a key role in Gerwig’s teenage experience, as did the ubiquitous adjective “tight.”
“Actually, the funnier version of it, to me, was when you were in elementary school and junior high, and if your parents caught you saying ‘hella,’ you’d get in trouble because it was like a curse word,” Gerwig recalled. “So people would say ‘that’s hecka tight’ as a way to get around the cursing. You’d say ‘heck’ instead. ‘It’s hecka tight.’ Such a rebel.”
The Grapes of Wrath
When the film opens, Lady Bird and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) are driving home from a college tour. Crying in unison, they listen to the hopeful closing passage from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. It’s a rare moment of tenderness between the two, who spend most of their time barking at each other. Moments after the audiobook ends, a fight breaks out about Lady Bird’s hunger to escape to an East Coast college, or maybe someplace “where writers live in the woods.”
″The Grapes of Wrath, to me, was such a definitive work about understanding California and understanding, really, how a lot of the people who would populate the world of this movie got there,” Gerwig said. “It’s probably how Lady Bird’s family got there. Sacramento is in the agricultural valley, and many people came as Dust Bowl farmers.”
The day Lady Bird turns 18, she buys cigarettes, a lottery ticket and an issue of Playgirl from a convenience store. Outside the shop, Lady Bird leafs through the magazine, naked men splayed across its pages. A cigarette dangles from her mouth. She’s grown up now, or so she thinks.
“You know, the truth is I never bought a Playgirl,” Gerwig said. “I didn’t! But every time I thought of Saoirse looking at a bunch of cocks, it made me laugh. I thought I would have her buy everything she could buy at 18. Like, ‘I can buy a scratcher, a cigarette and a Playgirl.’ It felt like that was the moment.”
Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me”
“I just always thought it was the most romantic song in the world,” Gerwig said without a speck of irony.
Gerwig was convinced “Crash Into Me” would be the song that Lady Bird and Julie cry to after getting their hearts broken by boys. She never considered an alternative.
“It was written into the script,” she said. “That was the song I wanted. I had no idea what I was going to do if Dave Matthews said no. I wrote him a letter describing how much I loved the song. I’d made my dad take me to one of his concerts. When I was in high school, he took me and stayed with me because I didn’t have anyone to go with. [Matthews] very, very kindly said yes.”
That rumor about clove cigarettes having fiberglass …
Trying to seem chic at a party, Lady Bird tells Kyle that the first cigarettes she ever smoked were cloves. Now it’s just what she’s used to, Lady Bird fibs. Kyle, who rolls his own smokes by hand, asks whether she’s aware that clove cigarettes contain fiberglass.
“I had this vague memory of the discussion of, ‘Does it have fiberglass or not?’” Gerwig recalled. “I didn’t check that with anything. I had this memory of kids saying that it had fiberglass, and it’s been so satisfying: So many people have said, ‘I heard that rumor too! Is that even true?’ And it’s just one of those things. Maybe it’s also a nod to pre-internet, when you couldn’t immediately check to see if it was true. It was like the blind leading the blind. Who knew if it had fiberglass? Some kid told that to some other kid once, and it just spread. It’s like an urban legend. I will go to my grave never knowing. I don’t want to know. I’m just interested in the rumor.”
“Lady Bird” is now playing in select theaters. It expands to additional cities throughout November.