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‘Rushmore,’ Solitaire, and Dave Matthews Band: The ‘Lady Bird’ Syllabus

A guide to the movies, books, and music that shaped the early-millennial masterpiece

A24/Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Greta Gerwig has described her charming solo directorial debut, Lady Bird, as a “love letter” to her hometown of Sacramento, and it’s not hard to see why. The coming-of-age film about a high school senior (Saoirse Ronan) with pink hair, boy problems, and a biting wit is replete with adoring golden-hour stills of city fixtures like the Tower Bridge and Thrift Town. But in addition to bringing a local’s touch to the set, Gerwig is also meticulous in portraying a cultural environment that reflected the puka-shell-rich experience of a rebellious theater nerd growing up in the early aughts. The movie begins in 2002, a year that Christine, a.k.a. “Lady Bird,” says is only interesting because it’s a palindrome. But the cultural accessories that fill each scene—the Bikini Kill poster above Lady Bird’s bed, the striped Gap sweaters worn by Lady Bird and her classmates, the round-the-clock television coverage of the Iraq War—illustrate the social, aesthetic, and political influences of an era that modern technology has made feel much longer ago than it actually was. Gerwig appears to have such a talent for drudging up these cultural fixtures that she’s even managed to revive interest in at least one irredeemable ’90s jam band. Below, a map to the music, movies, and literature that influenced, and is referenced in, the film.

“Joan Didion: Staking Out California,” by Michiko Kakutani (1979)

Lady Bird opens with a quote from a 1979 New York Times profile of Didion: “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” Didion, also a Sacramento native, says this to Kakutani on an airplane as their flight descends into the city, apparently in reference to California’s more widely known reputation as a playground for rebels and wanderers. Growing up in the underdeveloped valley town shaped Didion’s view of California; she saw it less a shelter for movie stars and flower children, more an unfulfilling expression of Manifest Destiny. (You can read all about it in her first novel, Run River, which follows the grandchildren of pioneers in Sacramento.) Lady Bird’s vision of Sacramento might not be quite as historically rooted or harsh, but it echoes Didion’s discord with the idea that California is all beaches and avocados.

‘The Grapes of Wrath,’ by John Steinbeck (1939)

The opening scene of the movie contains yet another reference to a great Californian literary figure, this time via a cheesily narrated book tape. On the way back from a college tour road trip, Lady Bird and her mom are brought to tears as the final lines of Grapes of Wrath play on the car’s speakers. A majority of Steinbeck’s work is set in central California; this particular novel follows a poor tenant farmer family’s journey from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to the fruitful “promised land” of California. As you might imagine, the Golden State doesn’t end up being the oasis it was made out to be. The reference is a clever historical jumping point to Lady Bird’s subsequent rant about wanting to go on her own pilgrimage “to go where culture is, like New York, or at least Connecticut or New Hampshire, where writers live in the woods.” Also, a Steinbeck mention is a surefire way to drudge up millennial nostalgia; those books were all over the California high school public system’s syllabi.

“Crash Into Me,” by Dave Matthews Band (1996)

The mid-’90s hit “Crash Into Me” is featured prominently in not one, but two Lady Bird scenes, and may be the most fervently discussed cultural artifact in the movie thus far. To most now-culturally-savvy millennials, Dave Matthews Band is seen as an embarrassingly sentimental footnote in their (OK, our) since-evolved musical taste. Even so, it’s impossible to deny the emotional significance that a gentle and somewhat perverse ballad like “Crash Into Me” had on most lovesick teenagers even years after its debut. Lady Bird plays off of this ambivalence: In the first scene, the song functions as the indulgent soundtrack to which Lady Bird and her best friend wallow in their romantic disappointments. In the second, Lady Bird’s tragically hip sorta-boyfriend Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) declares his hate for the song, and it becomes an immediate catalyst for solidifying her identity. “I fucking love this song,” she responds and asks him to drop her off at the house of her estranged and decidedly less cool best friend. Lady Bird’s decision has inspired a small population of former DMB fans to join her in solidarity.

‘A People’s History of the United States,’ by Howard Zinn (1980)

Zinn’s history book is yet another staple of the California state high school system curriculum; it was assigned to me in AP History alongside a more classic textbook. In short, it posits that the country was built on the exploitation of the masses by the powerful elite. It’s smart and correct but also written in such a way that it might shock and outrage a young person who has just recently taken an interest in politics. As a side effect, it was exactly the kind of book that a certain kind of brooding, pretentious dude got a little too obsessed with in high school. That Kyle is attached to a thoroughly dog-eared copy most of the film is a perfect way to illustrate his contradictory existence: He is a privileged suburban “anarchist” clutching to ideas from a book that he was likely assigned at a very expensive Catholic school.

“Cry Me a River,” by Justin Timberlake (2002)

“Cry Me a River,” the second single off of Timberlake’s debut solo album, marked the end of the more innocent boy-band-centric late ’90s, and the beginning of Timbaland’s Top 40 reign. Pretty much everything about it, and its accompanying music video, oozes 2002: JT’s Crouching Tiger–inspired dance moves, the Britney look-a-like, the tramp stamp on the model who helps him film a revenge sex tape, the fact that the revenge sex tape was filmed with a clunky camcorder, and not a phone. Of course this would be playing at Jenna Walton’s cool kids party.

‘Rushmore’ (1998)

Look closely enough, and you’ll notice a Rushmore poster hidden on the pink, collaged walls of Lady Bird’s room. It makes sense that our dear protagonist would be a fan of Wes Anderson’s seminal indie-comedy; its main character, Max Fischer (Jason Schwartzman), also happens to be an imaginative, underachieving scholarship student who dabbles in theater at a prestigious high school. Rushmore is a modern gem in the teen outcast movie canon, contrasting the uniformed order of a private school with the odd ambitions of one uncontainable student. Though the characters and story lines in Lady Bird are far more subtle, hints of Rushmore’s aesthetic and comedic influences are apparent in both the way Lady Bird behaves in class and her sardonic interactions with Sacred Heart’s nuns.

Jon Brion

One of the reasons that the early-aughts pop music in Lady Bird is so affecting is that most of its soundtrack is instrumental. The emotional tempo of the film—from Lady Bird’s pervasive Sacramento ennui to her budding romances with Danny and Kyle—is pushed along by original music from Jon Brion, the producer-slash-composer responsible for the heart-wrenching soundtracks of turn-of-the-century classics like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Magnolia, Punch-Drunk Love, and I Heart Huckabees. Brion is also known for his collaborations with Fiona Apple, who is an essential millennial touchstone in her own right.

Microsoft Windows Solitaire (First released in 1990)

In the dial-up days, you couldn’t log into AOL if your home phone line was in use. And frequently that meant occupying yourself with whatever you could find on Windows 98 while you waited for your mom to finish talking to a friend. This is how pretty much every first-generation internet user also became a low-key Solitaire shark. That Lady Bird’s unemployed father would gravitate toward the same mindless distraction on the family’s shared living room computer is extremely on point.

The Theater-Heavy Playlist That Gerwig Gave Lucas Hedges

In an interview with Vulture, Hedges (who played Lady Bird’s initial love interest, Danny) said that Gerwig helped him prepare for his role as theater geek by giving him “all these things that were reminiscent of that time and place in her life.” Alongside a book of poetry and movie recommendations, Gerwig made him a playlist filled with Broadway classics and indie pop. They included Rent’s “Seasons of Love” and music from Stephen Sondheim musicals Sunday in the Park With George and Merrily We Roll Along (which is performed in the film). Also: the Magnetic Fields, Aimee Mann, Elliott Smith, John Lennon, and 1970s English rock band Supertramp. (My personal theory is that Gerwig discovered Supertramp as a teen the same way I did, via a 2001 Gap holiday commercial in which various artists sang parts of “Give a Little Bit.”)

Below is an attempt at recreating the playlist Hedges described in the interview, along with other music featured in the film and its trailer.