Ladybird — Saying the Most with The Least
Do you ever read something that makes you mad? Not because it’s out of touch or crude, but simply because it’s so good that you struggle to understand how anyone, much less you, could be able to reach such astonishing levels?
That’s how I feel everytime I read Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird. Maybe I’m just a sap for a good coming-of-age story, or maybe I’m biased towards anyone who sheds a light on my perfectly mediocre hometown, but this is a script which I’m incredibly emotionally attached to anytime I read it.
All that is to say that there’s a lot in that script worth learning from. So much so that to go over every aspect of would be overkill. Instead, I just want to focus on one of it’s many masterful moments- the opening. I’m not going to go into the full scene, or even discuss the setting or circumstances it takes place in. Rather, I want to simply dissect the four lines we receive at the film’s opening, and how those four lines paint everything we need to know about the film’s central themes.
Here are those lines:
What makes this brief but revealing exchange so great? Well…
- Concise: Ladybird’s very first line, “Do you think I look like I’m from Sacramento?” immediately makes us aware of her central flaw and dilemma which, of course, are the same thing. This line points to her being ungrateful for her upbringing (her flaw), and similarly insists that she wants to be anywhere but Sacramento (her dilemma). To get both of these central character points out in nine words is… well, it’s astounding.
- Conflict: Notice that Marion’s reply immediately sets the stage for conflict. And this isn’t just any conflict- this is the conflict they will have for the entirety of the film. Ladybird will constantly be imagining a better life, whereas Marion will exist as a fervent reminder of Ladybird’s unappreciated reality. As great scripts do, this conflict perfectly lends itself to…
- Theme: The first two lines not only establish the relationship between the characters, but similarly sets the thematic stakes for the story in a blunt yet entirely natural form. This is more than Ladybird wanting something and Marion stopping her- this is a deep, philosophical conflict about the merits of fantasy and ambition versus those of reality and gratitude. Though this thematic conflict will be dealt with in the run of the story, we get a clear taste of it here.
- Actions Reflect Character: Those first two lines, by themselves, tell us a great deal about each character, but they don’t necessarily show us how each character interacts with the world. This is why the next exchange between Marion and Ladybird is so rich- it’s their dueling philosophies displayed in clear, visual action! Marion wants to clean their motel- she believes that places and people, no matter the circumstance, deserve respect. Ladybird thinks such a thing is pointless- her only responsibility ought to be to herself. With this exchange, we get a precise picture of how each character will interact with the world, and how those actions will almost always be in conflict with each other.
All in all, Gerwig’s Ladybird is a masterclass in moments like this. By remaining true to her characters, consistently keeping the film’s thematic conflict in sight, and never allowing moments to overstay their welcome, her story shines bright as something any writer would hope to one day achieve.