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‘Lady Bird’ Is the World’s First Sacramento Movie

And the people of Sacramento are thrilled about their first big Oscar moment

Getty Images/AP Images/A24/Ringer illustration

There’s something extremely Sacramento about the way Lady Bird’s Kyle, played by Timothée Chalamet, says “hella tight.”

I didn’t even notice this line the first time I watched the movie—it washed right over me because I grew up in the Sacramento area, where a phrase like “hella tight” is just background noise in everyday conversation. But it wasn’t lost on one of my longtime friends, Sebastian, who grew up with me in Sacramento but now lives in Hollywood.

“It made me think of Los Angeles, and being laughed at when I casually said ‘hella’ when I first got here,” he told me.

Kyle actually drops “hella tight” twice in the film—first when he meets Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) at a coffee shop, and second in a parking lot, perched atop the back of a sedan. It was that second time that provoked the reaction from my friend.

“He crosses the line between edgy teenager into hipster catastrophe somewhere in there,” Sebastian said.

It’s that kind of authenticity that has made Lady Bird, by hometown director Greta Gerwig, so beloved by Sacramentans: Half of Sacramento-area high schoolers fall somewhere between edgy teenager and hipster catastrophe. Since its release, the film’s relationship with the city has grown into something unique—as Sunday’s Academy Awards close in, Sacramento is practically rallying around the movie like it’s a sports team.

The Sacramento Bee has written glowing articles. An advertising company put up 11 pro-bono billboards to celebrate the film. The city is using the movie for tourism. And The Bee has used Lady Bird to ask if Sacramento is “more talented than we thought.” Virtually any time the movie makes a positive headline, the Sacramento subreddit blows up. When the first negative review for the film appeared on Rotten Tomatoes, it drew the ire of Sacramentans everywhere. And it comes up virtually whenever I talk with someone from the area. This isn’t just a film people from the area enjoy—it’s one many feel the need to actively defend.

That intense reaction from Sacramento citizens may be a byproduct of the fact Sacramento has never gotten a fraction of this much attention on the screen. IMDb lists just 43 feature films containing the word “Sacramento” in their plot synopsis, a number that—no surprise—falls far short of that for other California cities like Los Angeles (2,132 titles) or San Francisco (738). Sacramento can’t compete even with similarly sized metro areas like Orlando (82), Portland (88), Pittsburgh (86), or Cleveland (105).

And the few films that are set in Sacramento don’t exactly offer much of a look at the area. The 2009 Katherine Heigl–Gerard Butler rom-com The Ugly Truth is technically set in Sacramento, but didn’t make its setting very memorable. Other People, released in 2016 and starring Jesse Plemons, would offer a (somewhat cynical) look at the city, but it was filmed entirely in Los Angeles. In 2005’s Jarhead, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Anthony Swofford, who is from the Sacramento area, but the film is mostly set on the other side of the planet, where it explores the psychological costs of the Gulf War. After a few other forgettable rom-coms, the Sacramento filmography is populated with silent films (like Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. or Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush) and the occasional passing shot (like, fun fact, the opening scene in American Beauty). It’s slim pickings, especially considering the city’s history: Horse in Motion, often cited as the earliest motion picture ever recorded, was filmed in Sacramento in 1878.

Sacramento, the city, had virtually never been a character on a movie screen before Gerwig’s semiautobiographical film. Lady Bird is the world’s first Sacramento Movie. It’s no wonder the people of Sacramento are so enthralled by it.

A showing of Lady Bird is especially magical at Sacramento’s Tower Theatre, where the movie has been playing four times per day since it opened there in October. The audience there laughs at Sacramento references (or sighs, if it’s a joke at Sac’s expense) and, when the Tower itself appears briefly on screen, they applaud. My mom went to see Lady Bird at the Tower in January, and it was still packed. “We were in a long line waiting, and this guy asked me what I was seeing and I was like, ‘Oh, Lady Bird.’ He said, ‘You’re so lucky to be seeing it here,’” she told me.

In Sacramento, people just can’t stop talking about what part of the movie stuck with them. When I visited over the 2017 holidays, I couldn’t get 20 minutes into a conversation with anyone from the area without Lady Bird coming up. For some, it’s the shock of just seeing a place that they’ve been to on the big screen.

“Even shopping at the thrift stores really resonated with me!” a family friend, Pam, who has lived in the area since 1989, told me. “I spent a lot of time at Thrift Town on my lunch hour. It was right down the road from where I worked. It was looking pretty good [in the movie].”

Sacramento doesn’t just manifest itself in the shooting locations of the film, but in the core themes that Lady Bird explores. For Pam, who raised a daughter in the Sacramento area, the mother-daughter relationship mirrored her own: “I was kind of reliving some of my … me … and my life,” she said. “It was very close to my heart.” My mom had a similar reaction: “I loved watching [Lady Bird and her mother] in the car having their sometimes good talks and sometimes bad talks and realizing that all mother-daughter relationships are sometimes good and sometimes horrible,” she said.

For one of my high school friends, Tony, the magic of the movie was tied to the way it showed the different neighborhoods across the area. “You could come from ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ and still be a neighborhood away from the Fab 40s and places like Ronald Reagan’s mansion,” he said. “Sacramento has a lot of the qualities of a big city but they’re geographically compressed into a small area.” Tony moved to the Bay Area last year and says he can understand Lady Bird’s desire to get out of Sacramento—and her subsequent nostalgia for home. “I spent this past weekend in Sac and I really felt like I was back at home. I don’t think any other city could give me that feeling,” he said. “Sac is where I’m from.”

Another friend, Andrew, who moved to Santa Barbara for college but now lives in the area again, also relates to Lady Bird’s desire to leave Sacramento. “It’s something every Sacramento native is familiar with,” he said. “People are likely to explain their reason for living here as a mixture of being too content to leave and the cost of living in other major California metropolitan areas being too high.”

Leaving your hometown is a common coming-of-age theme, but another of my Sacramento friends, Kathy, followed Lady Bird’s path exactly and moved to New York City after high school. “I feel so attuned to what [Lady Bird] is experiencing,” Kathy said. “Especially in those first few scenes in New York, when she feels that rush of moving to New York and escaping the life that she’s known for so long and feeling scared and free and happy and confused and alone all at the same time. And then especially, her finally recognizing and appreciating her life, her family, and her home—I related with it so much.”

The part that struck me the most relates to a specific moment: the scene where Kyle tells Lady Bird that they should go to “the Deuce” to hang out. The Deuce turns out to be a parking lot where high school kids meet up to do … basically nothing. When I first saw this scene in the theater, I laughed out loud (I’m pretty sure I was the only one). It was the exact type of thing I did when I was that age—though for us, it wasn’t a parking lot, it was the top of a local hill. It’s probably something bored teenagers do all across America, but in that moment, I’d never seen anything so true to my experience growing up in the Sacramento area.

As almost anyone from the city will tell you, Lady Bird is a resonant portrayal of Sacramento in all the ways that matter: from the scenery of the Tower Bridge and the Fab 40s neighborhood to the area’s little-sibling complex. But when watching the movie, I was reminded of how rapidly the town is changing. Geographically, at least, the city is starting to not even resemble the Sacramento in Lady Bird.

I grew up in Rocklin, a suburb located about 20 miles outside the city that’s more aesthetically similar to Granite Bay, where Jenna and Lady Bird go swimming in the film (though less affluent), than it is to East Sacramento, where Lady Bird’s house is. It’s a straight shot down Interstate 80 to get into town … and yet there was rarely a reason to go. When I lived in the area, downtown Sacramento was only just beginning to implement a long-planned renovation that had been delayed after the 2008 economic downturn, which hit the area and the surrounding Central Valley particularly hard. I probably made the two-hour drive to San Francisco’s downtown more times than I did the 20-minute one to Sacramento’s—there just wasn’t much that would bring me to the city center.

Now, downtown Sacramento is thriving. Part of that is due to the construction of the Golden 1 Center, which opened its doors in October 2016 and has boosted spending and employment in the downtown area. But it’s not just the new basketball arena—in the past three years, the amount of construction in the city tripled. The food and drink scene in the area exploded and, in 2017, matured. Tourism to the city has risen and Sacramento has commissioned art projects to add a splash of color to downtown.

Of course, the investment in the city is not without its drawbacks. The arena cost $255 million in public money—not including the land parcels that were donated to the Kings—and the city won’t pay off the debt until 2050. With the influx of development has come a rapid rise in gentrification. Much of the housing that has been built isn’t affordable, and rents are skyrocketing. But visitors won’t notice these drawbacks when they’re walking around the city. On a recent trip downtown, I got some sushi, hit an arcade-themed bar, and then saw a Kings game—and every place I went would have felt right at home in a larger, more “cultured” city.

Make no mistake, Lady Bird herself would still be craving the excitement of New York City, but Sacramento isn’t the dull town it was 15, 10, or even five years ago. My friend Andrew recently bought a house in Tahoe Park, just southeast of the city center. It’s not something he imagined himself doing back when we attended high school together, and it was a move that coalesced after he lived in midtown for two years.

“Those two years changed my thoughts on the city,” he said. “The nightlife, food, and beer scenes are quite expansive. ... It is not uncommon to find Bay Area or Southern California transplants touting the amenities of Sacramento rather than vice versa. Either Sacramento is becoming a better place to live or my opinions are changing as I age.” It’s a question worthy of Lady Bird: The Sequel.

As Oscars season has continued, Lady Bird has become more and more of a long shot in each of the five categories in which it’s nominated. It struck out at the PGAs, DGAs, SAGs, and WGAs, which all but eliminated it from serious contention in the Best Picture race. The film is also nominated for Best Actress (Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf), Best Director (Gerwig), and Best Original Screenplay, but Gerwig and Ronan haven’t taken home any hardware since the Golden Globes (which shares no voting overlap with the Academy), making them long shots in their respective categories. Metcalf is an underdog against I, Tonya’s Allison Janney in the Supporting Actress category, and the movie’s screenplay looks to be drawing dead in a two-horse race between Get Out and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

The prospect of an 0-for-5 Oscar night feels anticlimactic after Lady Bird won Golden Globes for Best Motion Picture (Musical or Comedy) and Best Performance by an Actress (Musical or Comedy) and Gerwig shouted out Sacramento in her acceptance speech: “I want to thank my mom and dad and the people of Sacramento, who gave me roots and wings and helped me get where I am today.”

(And yes, just that one-line Sacramento reference set The Sac Bee ablaze.)

Located barely two hours from the culture and tech powerhouse that is the Bay Area, Sacramento is well adjusted to the underdog role—so it’s fitting that the Oscars are no different. Luckily, if Lady Bird does fall short on Sunday, Sacramento may get another shot: Gerwig is already talking about doing as many as three more films in the area. But Lady Bird is already special to Sacramento, and it’s hard to imagine the type of reaction from the city if it were to pull off an upset win and Gerwig name-dropped Sacramento at the Academy Awards. My friend Kathy was optimistic: “It absolutely would mean more to me if it won, because it’s still my hometown and I still love it and I love that it’s getting its story,” she said. “[We need] more movies in Sac!” But a Best Picture Oscar still feels a little … unlikely. As my friend Tony put it: “It would feel like a hometown sports team winning the national title—something that doesn’t happen. Looking at you, Kings.”

A win in the Best Picture category might just be the biggest cultural triumph and most attention the area has seen since gold was discovered at Sutter Mill in 1848. I don’t think anyone would blink if Sacramento hosted a parade to celebrate.

Or to put that thought in a Sacramento dialect: A Lady Bird win would be hella tight.