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The Miseducation of Lady Bird

We’re all in high school now

Lately I’ve been feeling like I’m living in hell, by which I mean high school. My peers are reading Teen Vogue. I’ve been encouraged not to spend time alone with the opposite sex or say things that might offend particular people, especially women, who could be described, depending on how you view quality/quantity of social media followers, as popular. Gossip is being celebrated as a radical tool for fighting oppression; disagreements are public, often initiated by cryptic denouncement followed by frantic asking around to figure out who did what to whom. Trending topics prompt acquaintances to write lengthy Facebook posts that read like ninth-grade English essays. People having parties to which I was not invited document them, live, on Instagram, and it feels bad. The president just called Kim Jong Un “short and fat.” I recently joined a club. 

High school, like life under capitalism, always sucks. What Lady Bird presupposes is: What if it didn’t?

It’s an ideal moment for a movie like Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, which follows the charmingly bratty Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) through her senior year at an all-girls Catholic school in Sacramento in 2002 and 2003. Not everyone, I’m told, hated high school quite so much as I did, but as with life under capitalism, it’s a comprehensively painful experience that works for a few at the expense of many. It always sucks. What Lady Bird presupposes is: What if it didn’t?

The film opens with a Joan Didion quote—“Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento”—before cutting to Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), at the end of a road trip they’ve taken together to visit colleges. It’s a scene that establishes the whiplash quality of their relationship: one minute, they’re laughing and shedding shared tears over the end of a Grapes of Wrath book-on-tape, the next they’re fighting over Lady Bird’s future. Lady Bird wants to go to college on the East Coast, “where culture is”; Marion knows the family can’t afford it, and she also suspects Lady Bird couldn’t get in. Like the entire script, the argument is original, cutting, and laugh-out-loud funny, and it escalates to a surprising punchline. After Marion tells Lady Bird that, “with her work ethic,” she should just go to “City College . . . and then to jail, and then back to City College,” Lady Bird opens the door and throws herself out of the moving car.

Framed by this relationship and by Lady Bird’s parallel love–hate connection to Sacramento, Lady Bird unfolds as a typical coming-of-age tale as it establishes all the elements of high school one expects from a high school movie: a sidekick best friend (Beanie Feldstein); a rich, popular girl (Odeya Rush) who wears her skirts too short; homecoming and prom; boyfriends (one too good to be true and one not good enough); a house party; a part-time job; a school play; selfish rebellion; mild backstabbing; loss of virginity. For most of the film, Gerwig is especially deft as she deals with issues of class, which Lady Bird must navigate as a scholarship student whose good-cop father recently lost his job. (Marion is a nurse, and the gap between how she thinks about money and how her daughter does is as realistic as it is devastating.) Regarding actual schoolwork, Lady Bird isn’t great—at one point she sneaks into her math classroom to steal her teacher’s grade books—but she makes up for it in moxie and self-assuredness, easily endearing herself to everyone from the school nuns she gently terrorizes to, yes, even the popular girl.

Lady Bird is good as a feel-good movie, which means if you see it, you will probably feel good. What I’m here to write about is not whether it’s good, but whether it is, as critics (who range from old white men to those of us closer in demographic to Gerwig) have claimed, “perfect,” “exquisite,” and “extraordinary.” An extracurricular aspect of our adolescent reality is the formation of mutual understandings about Things That We Like, from musicians to movies to food to opinion columnists to TV shows (and indeed TV itself). Of course, people have long had straightforward tastes that cluster around trends—this is how popular culture sustains itself—but social media seems to have sped up that process, or at least made its mechanisms visible. A system that feeds on humans’ social impulses—for identification, approval, and association—encourages those drives, inevitably rewarding the immediate and recognizable over the difficult and unfamiliar.

For people who do not like the Things That We Like, or even simply do not like them quite so enthusiastically, watching this happen can be alienating in the way that pep rallies were once alienating. Why is everyone cheering? They just smash into each other until one of the teams gets the ball to the end of the field? Who cares if we win? Is something wrong with me? The first time I saw Lady Bird, at the New York Film Festival, it received a standing ovation. The second time, a middle-aged man, alone, sitting in front of me, had visible tears rolling down his cheek; as I left the theater, I overheard a young woman, one of a trio sporting leather backpacks and elaborate Nikes, brag, “I’m going to be honest: I cried three times.” What?

One of the horrible things about high school is the disorienting power of the emotions you experience: you think your feelings are intense and meaningful, as if you are the only person who has ever felt them. In fact, your feelings are humiliatingly common, obvious, and easily interpreted by all the adults around you. At first, Lady Bird plays with this torturous adolescent intensity; by mocking its own earnestness, the film allows it to exist alongside the recognition that Lady Bird is an emotional teenager with, as her principal (Lois Smith) tells her, a “performative streak.” At one point, lying in a field with Danny, her first, too-good-to-be-true boyfriend (Lucas Hedges), she tells him tentatively that he can touch her boobs; he responds, “I respect you too much for that.” They select a star in the sky as “theirs,” name it Bruce, and yell “I love you!” at it. A few scenes later, when Lady Bird catches Danny making out with a guy in a bathroom stall, the camera cuts to her sobbing next to her best friend, Julie, as “Crash Into Me” by Dave Matthews Band plays.

Like I said: funny. But as the year goes on, the film undermines this funniness as it attempts to pull it all together in a grand thesis, about the beauty of youth or flaws or ambiguity or mothers and daughters or Sacramento or it all. A sudden shift occurs during the sex scene, when Lady Bird loses her virginity to Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), the second, not-good-enough boyfriend. Kyle is in a band, says he doesn’t “like” money (despite going to private school, etc.), reads books like A People’s History of the United States, knows clove cigarettes aren’t cool, and says that one day the government will track us all through our cell phones. That he is more or less correct about all these things does not change the fact that he’s also a twerp. He lies to Lady Bird the first time they make out; he tells her he’s a virgin when she blurts out she’s not ready for sex. Thus, when the pair eventually do make it to his bedroom, she believes they’re on the same page, and informs him that she is now ready. 

It doesn’t last long, but Lady Bird believes it is special nonetheless. This also doesn’t last long. As soon as she swoons into a girly reverie about how they “deflowered” each other, Kyle corrects her: he’s actually had sex with “like” six people—he doesn’t keep a list. “Why wouldn’t you keep a list?” Lady Bird cries. “We’re in high school! . . . Who the fuck is on top their first time?” She laments that she wanted her first time to be “special”; Kyle replies, “You’re going to have so much un-special sex in your life.” (Again, annoyingly spot on.) As on a couple of other occasions, a TV broadcasting news about the Iraq War plays in the background; when Kyle tries to start talking about it, Lady Bird snaps, “Different things can be sad . . . it’s not all war.” She then asks if they’re still going to prom.

It’s an extraordinary scene, perceptive and intelligent in a way you’d want your daughter to be in this situation and in a way that few daughters, if any, ever are. Where Lady Bird was previously a moody and aggrieved teenager, sensitive and prone to outbursts, she now possesses an impossible savvy, a more measured wisdom. Though it’s tempting to say the un-special sex has made her realize the world does not play out as teen-girl fantasy, the effect is too uncanny to be chalked up to mere epiphany. As in another high school movie about bickering mothers and daughters, an adult woman begins speaking through a teenage girl’s body; Gerwig writes herself into a kind of autofictional Freaky Friday.

From here, the pace becomes curiously quick, cutting from scene to scene to tie up loose ends; Lady Bird remains in control of the film, but something has changed in Lady Bird. She gets waitlisted at one of the expensive East Coast colleges she applied to behind her mother’s back and is elated. She goes prom dress shopping with Marion, who tells her, “I want you to be the very best version of yourself you can be.” In the car with Kyle on the way to prom, “Crash Into Me” comes on, and Lady Bird cancels the original joke when he makes fun of it by saying she genuinely likes the song; instead of going to the dance with Kyle, she asks to be dropped off at Julie’s house, and the two make up after a brief tiff caused by Lady’s Bird’s foray into the cool crowd (though Jenna was never a stereotypical snob or queen bee, but actually quite mature). Julie asks what it was like to have sex; Lady Bird is admirably unfazed by Kyle’s betrayal and says she prefers dry humping. She gets into the East Coast college off the waitlist; we get a quick visual of Lady Bird and her father in a bare bank office, the word “refinance” like a door in a horror film the protagonist shouldn’t open. They open it, and it’s fine. In the fall, Lady Bird arrives in New York starry-eyed and excited, goes to a party, leans out a window and honors “Bruce!” in the sky, gets too drunk, pukes, is taken to the hospital, wakes up, is not hurt, goes to church (not something she or her family ever expressed true interest in before), and calls her mom to apologize for the summer-long fight they’d been having about her college application betrayal and to say she loves her.

Much praise for Lady Bird has been rooted in identification with the protagonist, a rave ideally suited to social media.

We’re left with a canned speech that is so unapologetically corny that I couldn’t believe it, and then the credits roll. It is exactly what a mother would want to happen: for all desires to be met without consequence or bad feeling, for all rites of passage to pass painlessly, for her to be the very best version of herself she can be.

Much of the anecdotal praise I’ve seen for Lady Bird has been rooted in identification with the protagonist, a rave ideally suited to social media for the way it allows people to easily associate themselves with a clearly remarkable character (“I was just like this unrealistically with-it teen in high school!”) while rewriting their adolescences from adulthood. Why Gerwig and her audience would want to mother themselves through the horrors of high school, the necessary milestones that range from un-special to uncomfortable to traumatizing, is not hard to figure out; what’s surprising, or at least dispiriting, is the willingness with which adults sacrifice their hard-won autonomy for an existence so remedial.

In an interview with the New York Times Magazine, Gerwig said, “I have a deep need to take care of my characters. It’s not that I don’t want to go down the dark avenues—I want to hold their hands down the dark avenues.” For a bunch of teenage brains trapped in adult bodies, this approach doesn’t seem embarrassing, common, or obvious. It ends up feeling just right.