Today on the Research Log, we’re diving into the coming-of-age story of Christine McPherson, aka Lady Bird. We rewatched Greta Gerwig’s beautiful movie for the millionth time and used the Storyclock Notebook to visualize the story in the form of a clock.
Let's Break It Down
- Opening Image: Lady Bird and her mom Marion (let’s just call her “mom”) are at peace… while they’re asleep.
- Normalcy: Lady Bird and Mom argue in the car. Lady Bird jumps out and breaks her arm. She goes to a catholic school called Sacred Heart and wants to get into a liberal arts college on the East Coast where the “culture” is.
- Normalcy Disrupted/Herald: Sister Sarah Joan suggests Lady Bird should try out for the fall musical. Lady Bird auditions and fall in love at first sight with Danny.
- Acceptance/Break into Act 2: Lady Bird meets Danny at the grocery store and has her first “grown up” conversation. They slow dance at the school dance and have their first kiss. Lady Bird is in full-on young love. Dad gets fired from his job and LB and Mom’s drama continues to escalate.
- Trailer Moments/Promise of the Premise: Lady Bird and Danny’s entire relationship: young love, naming stars together, saying “I love you” to each other, Thanksgiving at grandma’s house, the school play… and then Lady Bird finds Danny in the boys bathroom kissing a boy. She cries with Julie in the car while listening to Crash by Dave Matthews Band. Lady Bird tries to get in with the mean girls to grow closer to cool boy Kyle. Mom grows increasingly impatient with Lady Bird. Dad helps Lady Bird with financial aid applications.
- Midpoint: Lady Bird ties the loose ends with Danny when he shows up to the coffee shop.
- Things Get Worse: Lady Bird freaks when she only gets accepted to UC Davis.
- Hero’s Last Resort: Lady Bird makes out with Kyle. They start dating. (Or do they? This dude is cryptic. Our guess is as good as hers.)
- Game Over: Mom tells Lady Bird that Dad is depressed. Lady Bird and Julie have a shouting match outside of the school. Lady Bird gets suspended. Jenna finds out Lady Bird was lying about her house. Lady Bird has unspecial sex with Kyle. And sandwiched in between all of this are some sweet moments between Lady Bird and her parents.
- Breakthrough and Rebirth/Break Into Act 3: Lady Bird hears Crash by Dave Matthews Band on the radio and ditches her “new friends” to return to Julie. She’s made a big decision about the person she wants to be and who she wants to be with.
- Hero Gains Upper Hand: Lady Bird graduates and gets accepted to the college in NYC!
- Shadow's Final Push: Mom finds out that Lady Bird applied to the east coast college without telling her. Instead of arguing and freaking out on her, she just gives her the silent treatment. Lady Bird longs for a response from her and receives nothing.
- Ultimate Breakthrough: Mom and Dad drop Lady Bird off at the airport. Mom leaves without going in, immediately regrets it and is too late to say bye to her at security. Lady Bird starts going by her given name, “Christine”. When unpacking she reads a sweet letter from Mom that Dad pulled from the trash can. She is a young adult, living on her own, able to make her own decisions. She gets smashed.
- New Normalcy/Final Image: Lady Bird walks to a catholic church and is overcome with a need to call her mom. She leaves a voicemail thanking her and telling her that she loves her. Beautiful Sacramento montage mirroring LB and Mom driving.
- Lady Bird and Mom go dress shopping before the homecoming dance / They go dress shopping before Prom
- Lady Bird and Julie listen to Crash by Dave Matthews Band after Lady Bird catches Danny cheating / Lady Bird hears Crash by Dave Matthews Band on the radio in the car and goes back to Julie
Lady Bird’s Journey
I love this movie. Greta Gerwig truly has a gift with words– she crafts dialogue that somehow feels incredibly natural but also stylistic at the same time. But the dialogue isn’t the only great part about the script, the structure is also top notch.
Lady Bird’s journey as the protagonist is largely an internal one. The conflict of the film is her trying to find out who she wants to become. Her wants are established very early on– she wants something bigger and more magical than what she’s getting in Sacramento. She wants to be in New York where the culture is. Throughout the film we see her grow from being self-centered in this desire to realizing her love for her best friend and her mom.
Her mom, Marion, is the person in the way of those wants and her desires. She’s essentially the antagonist.
The Antagonist Loves the Protagonist… But Does She Like Her?
Can an Antagonist also be the Ally? Of course! At the end of the day, Lady Bird and Marion clearly love each other very much. Marion is constantly sacrificing and working hard so that Lady Bird can have a great childhood, and Lady Bird is sticking up for her mom when her friends talk bad about her (“She’s not crazy, she just has a big heart. She’s very warm.”)
But does she like her? That’s the question, and even one that Lady Bird asks her point blank. Marion loves her daughter but can’t help but tear her down. It’s always with balance of course, with Lady Bird and her mom each giving their fair share of conflict. They aren’t perfect and they wear their hearts on their sleeves. With every shouting match there’s a tender moment, whether that’s them laying in bed together, having a “bird and bees” conversation, or Marion consoling LB after a breakup.
I love that Gerwig sets up the film so that you can empathize with both Lady Bird and Marion. We know that deep down Marion is only treating her daughter the way she does because she thinks that’s what’s best. When Dad gets let go from his job and they’re struggling financially, it does not make sense for Lady Bird to go to an expensive out of state school. Marion is fully justified in her annoyance of Lady Bird. But at the same time, we immediately love Lady Bird and see her side of the story.
The Lovable Rogue
You guys know this trope, it’s your Han Solo, Danny Ocean, Saul Goodman. It’s that incredibly charming and lovable character that often breaks the rules for their own personal profit– and we just can’t help but root for them. If there was ever a lovable rogue, it would be Lady Bird.
I love the way that Greta Gerwig writes this character. She’s astonishingly self-centered (starting a Julie fan-club, one of the best sidekick characters of all-time) and rude. But she’s also hilarious, clever, original, and says the kind of lines and zingers that we only wish we could come up with. As an audience member we love her from the start. LB knows what she wants and goes for it, and we support her even though she may go about it in an immature way. We’ve all been teenagers before right?
In this great video about how screenwriters outline, Greta Gerwig talks about how she doesn’t outline until she has a lot of her material already written. She instead starts with character and builds the story upon that. Every writer is different and I love that about screenwriting. If you’re looking for resources on how to better develop a story, check out the Storyclock Workbook.