Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird:
The Triumph of Family Values
Written & Directed by Greta Gerwig
Starring Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Tracy Letts, Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, Beanie Feldstein, Stephen McKinley Henderson, & Lois Smith
The Guardian has described Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, as an “antidote to Trump culture.” This was in an article about how the new film is the best-reviewed film of all time, judging from its 100% score on the review aggregator site Rotten Tomatoes. Indeed, at the time of the Guardian piece, 170 reviews had been counted, and at the time of my writing this, that number has risen to 191, and the score remains unchanged.
Not to jump on the bandwagon here, but I came away from Lady Bird thinking that it is a nice movie. It’s not an earth-shaking film, it’s not an epic Hollywood blockbuster, and it has some flaws that prevent it from being truly great. But it tells a simple and often funny tale, primarily based upon the relationship between a high school girl and her mother. It also has some powerful undertones about the concept of home and family that make it worth recommending.
For those unfamiliar with Greta Gerwig, she has been acting in the independent film milieu and rising to increasing stardom since 2006. Wikipedia tells us that “she has German, Irish, and English ancestry, and was raised as a Unitarian Universalist.” Her early acting roles were in films considered part of the mumblecore genre, known for low-budget production values, semi-improvised acting, and the showcasing of what might be described as a slacker mentality. To be honest, I find a number of the mumblecore movies to be quite compelling, especially Joe Swanberg’s LOL (not to be confused with the Miley Cyrus film of the same name), which is highly critical of how social media impacts our daily lives and which also has a strong anti-pornography message. It also happens to be Greta Gerwig’s first film.
After playing the lead in many of these low-budget films, Gerwig went on to take smaller supporting roles in bigger-budgeted Hollywood movies, as well some more significant parts in movies by the new Woody Allen-wannabe director, Noah Baumbach, with whom she collaborated on screenwriting as well. Perhaps more notably for our purposes, Gerwig starred in Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress. Mostly she has acted in films that fall into the category of quirky comic dramas, the type pioneered by the likes of Woody Allen, but I would say Lady Bird, which she wrote and directed but did not appear in, is more reminiscent of a Whit Stillman movie.
Whit Stillman’s films are known for their gentle ribbing (but also respectful portrayal) of aristocracy. They often feature characters who aspire to a class higher than their own. This is true of Lady Bird, which is about a teenage girl in Catholic school who dreams of one day getting out of Sacramento, California, which she describes as “the Midwest of California.” The trouble is that her family is not very well off and her grades are poor, and she fears that she will be stuck in a lower-middle class lifestyle, doomed to a mundane existence.
The teenage girl is played by Saoirse Ronan, who is probably best known for her starring role as an Irish immigrant in the movie Brooklyn. In both that film and this one, Ronan has an utterly enchanting onscreen presence. Her character’s name is Christine McPherson, but she insists upon being call Lady Bird, a name of her own choosing. She defiantly opposes having a “given name” bestowed upon her by her parents, and particularly by her mother, with whom she is in constant conflict. But the question of her name is a proxy for the tension she feels about her identity, and a desire to have some control over it. Her choice of the name Lady Bird is not explained, and there is no reference, as one might expect, to the former First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson.
The film depicts Lady Bird’s senior year at Immaculate Heart high school. The first part is about the first half of the school year. Lady Bird’s guidance counselor encourages her to try out for the musical, where she meets Danny, her first boyfriend. He turns out to be gay. She is extremely angry with him, but then there is a rather touching scene where he begs her not to tell anyone. She realizes that the situation is complicated and that her feelings aren’t the only ones that matter.
Feeling jaded by the experience with Danny leads Lady Bird to pursue the dark and mysterious Kyle, who plays in a band. She meets Kyle for the first time at a coffee shop, where he is reading A People’s History of the United States. In the course of their relationship, Kyle deceives her into thinking he is a virgin, and in her eagerness to be a rebel, she has sex with him in an extremely brief and anti-climactic scene. But despite Kyle’s shortcomings as a lover, she still wants to believe the experience was special because they “deflowered” each other. Then Kyle reveals that he has slept with “something like six women” and claims that he never said he was a virgin. Thus ends her fling with the hipster Communist.
While all this is going on, Lady Bird’s relationship with her best friend Julie suffers. Becoming part of Kyle’s circle of friends means spending time with a more affluent crowd. She replaces her friendship with Julie with one with the high school slut, Jenna, who has an enormous house, including a luxurious pool and her very own tanning bed. But Lady Bird and Jenna do not have much in common. When Lady Bird explains that her greatest desire is to get out of Sacramento, Jenna doesn’t understand or agree at all. Additionally, Lady Bird feels the need to lie to Jenna about where she lives, hiding the fact that her house is on “the wrong side of the tracks.” Again, we see Lady Bird struggling to understand her identity and how to be her authentic self.
Aside from boys and best friends, the primary conflict in the film is between Lady Bird and her mother. While the script for Lady Bird has some problems and doesn’t always seem realistic, Gerwig’s portrayal of the mother/daughter relationship struck me as truthful and conveyed each character’s perspective. The audience is left rooting for both mother and daughter rather than taking a side. The crux of the issue is that Lady Bird acts out in ways to distance herself from her mother’s expectations, but then demands that her mother accept her, even as she flaunts her own rebellion. On the other side, her mother interprets all of Lady Bird’s actions in the worst possible way and retaliates in a gruff and curt manner that only serves to push her daughter further away.
A primary point of contention between the mother and daughter is where Lady Bird will go to college. The daughter wants to go to a reputable East Coast liberal arts college, but her mother, citing concerns about money and doubts about Lady Bird’s academic abilities, thinks a state school in California would be best. The dispute becomes so touchy between them that it cannot be broached without a serious argument.
Lady Bird conspires to secretly apply to all of the schools of her dreams, recruiting her father to help her with the financial aid forms. When her mother finds out, she is so angry that she stops speaking to her. Even after her daughter is accepted to an unnamed school in New York City, the mother remains cold and seemingly uncaring. Of course, she really does care, but Lady Bird is unable to see it. The family is forced to refinance their house to be able to afford to pay the tuition.
The incessant worry about money in the film is wearisome and its least enjoyable aspect. The subject comes up a bit too frequently and feels overstated. Part of the family’s money problems relate to Lady Bird’s father losing his job. He was working in some kind of tech field in which it is hard for older people to compete. He is a kind-hearted, not-so-masculine mathematician who suffers from depression. He is the “good cop” of the parents, much to the frustration of his wife. She works as a hospital nurse, which one would think is a well-paying job, particularly for a seasoned nurse, but perhaps not in a city like Sacramento.
There aren’t many racial issues in Lady Bird. Most of Lady Bird’s classmates are Irish, like her, or Italian. There is a strange insertion of an older brother, apparently adopted, named Miguel who is probably mestizo. His presence in the film seemed odd, as if Gerwig didn’t want to make a movie with all white characters, so she added him for diversity’s sake. At one time, Lady Bird implies that the only reason Miguel got into Berkeley is because of his race, which I suppose was meant to show her nastier side.
Additionally, since this is a movie about a Catholic community, there are almost no Jews, which is refreshing for a quirky comic drama of this type. Although, as one might expect, after Lady Bird arrives in New York City she goes out to a party where she encounters her very first Jew (her best friend Julie is played by a Jewish actress, but I believe the character is supposed to be Italian), a guy named David. David tells Lady Bird he doesn’t believe in God because the whole concept is ridiculous.
The film ends with a literal come-to-Jesus moment. At the same party where she meets David, she gets incredibly drunk. He tries to start kissing her, but then she vomits. There’s something deeply satisfying about watching a white girl vomit after a Jew tries to force himself onto her. It turns out she has alcohol poisoning and has to go to the hospital. When she gets out of the hospital, it is Sunday morning, and she finds her way to church, where she listens to a choir.
The film ends with her exiting the church and calling her parents. They don’t pick up, so she has to leave a message on their answering machine. She identifies herself as “Christine, the name you gave me. It’s a good name.” She goes on to leave a very moving message, directed toward her mother. I can’t do justice to the message by describing it here, but what is clear by the end of the film is that Christine has found a sense of her identity that is rooted in her family, and she now has a sense of home. It’s not the place she ran away to, but the place where she came from.
Returning to where I started, is the Guardian correct that Lady Bird is the antidote to Trump culture? The claim seems absurd, like just another cheap ploy to make sure that every single thing the Jewish-controlled press publishes includes some sort of jab against Trump. The film takes place during the 2002-2003 school year, with the War in Iraq appearing on televisions in the background. Trump is nowhere in sight. It’s hardly a time to feel nostalgic, as neocons had seized control of American foreign policy and were implementing their Israel First agenda.
Any actual mention of politics in the film is comical. Gay Danny’s grandparents are Reagan-loving Republicans. Kyle’s radical Leftism is depicted as a pathetic and infantile joke. Yet there is a clear metapolitical message that you should always be able to rely on your family, and that your own people are what is truly important in life. The message, when expanded to the political realm, manifests as nationalism. Additionally, Catholicism is ultimately portrayed in a respectful manner, which is unusual for comedies. It’s a nice touch that the “given name” Christine rejects throughout the movie, but ultimately accepts, is a derivative of Christ.
Many critics are also saying that Lady Bird is a feminist film, so this of course relates to Trump as well. It’s true that Christine takes a few seemingly feminist stances, such as on the issue of abortion. Yet it seems clear that she is struggling with ideas that are not very well thought out and that it is all part of her struggle to understand her identity. Additionally, embedded in the film is a defense of the idea of chastity. I can’t imagine any girl watching the sex scene and feeling inspired to go out and lose her virginity. For that matter, I think young guys might take away the same sense of caution regarding sex. If this is a feminist film, it is not a version of feminism that encourages sexual liberation or treats sex as though it’s not a big deal.
Earlier, I said that this film is reminiscent of Whit Stillman’s work because Christine is aspiring to be part of a higher class of people. However, it differs from Stillman’s work in that what she finds in more affluent society is not an aristocratic type of people worthy of respect, but rather decadent and deceitful elitists who look down on people they consider to be their inferiors. The charming and worthy “urban haute bourgeoisie” depicted in Stillman’s own debut masterpiece, Metropolitan, has long since departed from America (although they probably never existed in a city like Sacramento).
Greta Gerwig has done a fine job with Lady Bird, constructing a sensible and subtly counter-cultural film. Her debut picture can’t be described as a masterpiece, but it is certainly a good start. I know there will be Alt Right people out there who will find numerous reasons to quibble over my praise, but I daresay that if Hollywood made more movies like this, then it wouldn’t deserve to be wiped off the map by a Korean nuclear missile. Go see the movie for yourself and find out. If you have teenage children, take them along and talk about it with them afterward.