In 2002, when Lady Bird begins, I was 16. As of yesterday, I’m precisely double that. An apt day to travel back in time, to when Nelly held positions three and four in the Billboard Top 100.
(the real tune of this movie is Justin Timberlake’s Britney revenge track Cry Me A River and you should definitely check out director Greta Gerwig’s letter to Timberlake to convince him to allow her permission to use the song solely for the term ‘full on make out‘, underlined for emphasis. This is extremely accurate btw, this is underlined make outs).
There were two pieces of feedback I took on when processing this movie. One was the review from a friend who’d already seen it – she didn’t like it, because she didn’t like the main character. The second was the couple chatting as we exited the cinema. She ‘didn’t get it’.
Let’s address the former first. I kinda knew from the trailer that the main character was going to be a bit infuriating. And I very much get the difficulty connecting with a story when you don’t like the main character – I get that feeling all the time. I cannot get in to Breaking Bad for the life of me. However. Lady Bird is a coming-of-age tale. The character needs to have somewhere to start from to grow.
And I’ve got a secret for you: the titular Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) is a lot of us as teenagers. She looks almost exactly like my older sister at 17, with shittily-dyed red hair, chokers and caked-on eyeliner, still insultingly beautiful in the way of some 17-year-olds. And almost all of us were raging assholes. I suspect the problem is we’ve become used to coming-of-age movies being about teenage boys. You probably didn’t hate William in Almost Famous, even though he was also a selfish shit who damn near tortured his mother. So I suspect we’re not trained think of girls in coming-of-age movies to be anything other than objects for teenage boys to fall in love with (Hello, Emma Watson in The Perks of Being a Wallflower). They have complicated inner lives too, and are battling their hormones just as much as teenage boys (that whole ‘girls mature faster’ thing? Yeah, we actually have to).
Now Lady Bird isn’t me as a teenager. For one thing, she is seriously extroverted (extroversion + hormones is a great recipe for a teenage asshole, by the way). She has what the nuns at her Catholic school call ‘a performative streak’ and god does she show it. So much yelling. But none of us can pretend that we didn’t know this person. We may all wish it gets channeled in to on-stage drama, but sometimes it just gets channeled in to making a spectacle of yourself. It’s a damn good thing for Lady Bird that YouTube wasn’t around in 2002. And extroversion isn’t necessarily something you grow out of. The character does mature over the course of the film, but she’s still drunkenly yelling out of windows at the end of the movie.
It’s a movie about relationships, but not really the ones you might think. Male-focused coming-of-age movies tend to be about falling in love, or lust, or whatever you want to call it. They’re not usually strictly romances, so it’s not necessarily about finding The One, just The One Who’ll Teach You Something About Yourself. Lady Bird has some excellent rite-of-passage relationships in the film – the closeted drama kid who just respects you so damn much he doesn’t really wanna touch you, the wanker in a band – but mostly, this is a movie about female relationships. The best friend. The mother. When it does touch on sex and relationships, it doesn’t punish Lady Bird for it. She can masturbate, she can lose her virginity and not fall pregnant her very first time (hello Saved! and Juno). Sure, her sexual experiences aren’t amazing pleasure-fests, but if you’re going to tell me yours were at that age, I’m gonna accuse you of boasting at best.
Cut to Lady Bird sharing a bathroom with her mother in their cramped abode, asking her when the right time to ‘do it’ is. Carefully weighing up how loaded this question is, Marion (Laurie Metcalfe) answers ‘College’. College is about right. She probably knows it’s all a little too late, but Lady Bird turns the conversation to her father, out of work and not coping well. This movie’s not just about being a teen, but about being lower-middle-class, and it’s for that reason, not her extroversion or her strong emotions or her ability to acquire more than one boyfriend, that I connected with Lady Bird. And it informs so much of her relationship with her mother. Neither her mother nor her father can give her a lot – they can give her love and good advice and try to set her up well for the future. You have to be an (early-series) Rory Gilmore angel-type to actually appreciate the sacrifices your parents make to give you a half-decent life, when you’re a teenager surrounded by kids with the shit you don’t have. This is perfectly encapsulated by Lady Bird and her best friend Julie, standing outside a fancy two-storey house, imagining their life inside it. A separate TV room. And snacks. Actually entertaining friends. Lady Bird’s shame about her neighbourhood, and her home, become a point of tension in her relationship with her Mum. And it’s not until you get a little bit older and wiser that you realise that even though all you want to do is give your kid more opportunities than you had, it still hurts like heck that the insecurity that’s part and parcel of being a teenager leads them to reject all the things you work hard to give them. That all they want to do is be somewhere else. Somewhere with the shine of glamour and intellectualism and maybe where they won’t have to shop in thrift stores. The heart of this tension is so incredibly real, and Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalfe bring so much to it that it made me want to call up my Mum.
If you’ve managed to catch I, Tonya, you know the flipside of this story. My forever crush Allison Janney plays Tonya Harding’s mother LaVona, tough-as-nails, and if she has a heart under there, it only shows in flashes. Whilst fighting for her opportunities, she essentially tries to scare Tonya (Margot Robbie, a revelation) in to achieving. It scars her and sets her up to see her entire life as a fight. Not a struggle. A fistfight. Marion gives Lady Bird some tough talk, but it’s done with a love that she can always recognise, will defend even in the middle of a fit of pique. She might be not believe it at the time, but it’s perfectly possible to be ‘scary and warm’, the perfect description for so many friend’s Mums that I want to go hug them all.
Part of coming-of-age is finding your people. Lady Bird handles the struggle of moving from childhood to adulthood and deciding what you want to keep perfectly. And it wasn’t really Lady Bird I connected with in this circumstance, but her childhood best friend Julie, neglected for the glamour of wealthier and cooler friends. Friends who wouldn’t touch the school play with a ten-foot pole. Because sometimes you end up being the friend who’s left behind. When our small-town grade of maybe 50 kids moved from primary school to a much bigger high school (although still very small in the grand scheme of high schools), my tall, beautiful, blonde, much more extroverted best friend of several years was swept off to the popular group, who liked me about as much as I liked them, which is to say not at all. She and I were never unfriendly, but drifting apart and being the friend who’s left behind sucks (although this is not a tale of woe…the group I eventually settled in, my people, the nerds, handed me the best friend I still have now). And this is such a real experience of being a teenage girl – shifting allegiances, shifting interests, while still feeling the strong bonds that no-one who’s never been a teenage girl can understand. No matter which position you’re in, you eventually have to decide what you fight to keep as you move in to being an adult.
I hope I’ve given Greta Gerwig enough credit for her script and directorial debut. A fitting love letter to her home town, the perfect encapsulation of a time (with a perfect soundtrack, hey there Dave Matthews), and a girl who’s allowed to be a bit of an asshole. This should win a whole bunch of Oscars, but I’m worried. That ‘I don’t get it’ reaction. Was it just the reaction of someone who needs their movies wrapped in a neat bow, lessons learned, no room for growth left in an 18-year-old character? Or do you have to have lived through it, to have your heart crash in to this film?
‘Hello, Academy? I’m nailing it over here. Pay attention’