Growing up is hard.
It is a sentiment universally known, its echoes heard from dinner tables to personal diaries, from college applications to therapy sessions. It, too, is universally understood as a rite of passage that subjects all and exempts none.
The coming-of-age genre holds a special weight in our minds because of this fact: Seeing the struggles of growth reflected, in the books we read and in the films we watch, reminds us, painfully yet beautifully, of just how much we ourselves have grown. Yet, the genre has been weakened by its sameness of character and narrative. In Hollywood’s eyes, an adolescent comprises of two-parts pseudo-angst, one-part social ineptitude and three-parts sexual drive. The individual has tragically become one of many iterations.
Lady Bird counters this trend with awkwardness and grace. Written and directed by Greta Gerwig, the film follows a year in the life of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), a high school senior in Sacramento, Calif. She comes from a lower-middle-class family, consisting of her kind but passive father Larry (Tracy Letts), her older brother Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues) and her well-meaning but overbearing mother (Laurie Metcalf). The Catholic high school she attends is full of people unlike her: conventionally beautiful, popular and rich. All Lady Bird can claim here is pink hair, a penchant for spontaneity and a loyal best friend named Julie (Beanie Feldstein).
Her causes for crisis are various in number and varying in degree: Poor academic performance, marginal social standing, dicey romances and rocky family life all seem to conspire against her. To put it simply, she is in the throes of adolescence. Gerwig neither inflates nor trivializes these problems, for she knows that there is truth found in the adolescent struggle. She wants to present these issues with honesty, for they are as selfish as they are valid, and as trifling as they are important. In various ways, the world really is at odds with Lady Bird — she faces a post-9/11 reality that mirrors her uneasiness, heightens her economic anxieties and attempts to put her in her place.
As the world corners her, Lady Bird can do nothing but push out. Can we blame her? Rebellion often works on a basis of desperation. The film explores her attempt to craft her own identity in spite of the one given to and forced upon her. She secretly applies to East Coast colleges when her mother is set on her staying in-state. She would much rather be in New York or Connecticut than in Sacramento, which she derides as the “Midwest of California.” She hides her lower-middle-class background in shame, having her father drop her off blocks from school and lying to a new friend about where she lives. In her eyes, to craft is to escape — into a reality free from the problems she faces.
Yet, Lady Bird can never fully shrug them off. If anything, she must face both existing and emerging problems, like her romances with Danny (Lucas Hedges) and Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), or her new friendship with Jenna (Odeya Rush), the popular girl in school. Throughout the film, she slowly comes to realize one of life’s unforgiving truths: Problems themselves are inescapable, for one will simply turn into another.
Our heroine finds herself in a state of in-betweenness, unsure of where her authentic self lies. There are no tidy conclusions, for the film is mired in the mess of life. Yet, Lady Bird (and we viewers) comes to realize another truth: that beauty often comes from this hectic and amorphous mess. Behind every argument with her mother is an unspoken assertion of love, and with every step forward is a backwards glance.
Gerwig reminds us that growth is a difficult and uncertain process, but a necessary and beautiful one. She brings to her characters a nuanced tenderness, while the actors and actresses bring flesh to this quality. While the ensemble is incredibly strong, two performances are worthy of note: Ronan gives her best performance to date, balancing volatility and restraint. Metcalf is her equal in both temperament and skill, which plays out in every heartfelt and entertaining mother-daughter scene. Gerwig must also be given credit, for her talents as writer and purveyor of life come to full light in her film. Lady Bird is an homage to many things: adolescence, Sacramento, home and, most importantly, life’s confusions and contradictions. Earnestly, our heroine’s story is told; profoundly, her story is felt. The film reclaims the individual, and in doing so, transforms the iterative into the universal once more.
Saoirse Ronan authentically portrays the difficulty of navigating life as a teenager in ‘Lady Bird.’ Photo courtesy of Vanity Fair.