The internal structure of Lady Bird is, I think, unconsciously designed to evoke the monster mother and then deflect the daughterly hostility she provokes by turning things around to insist, ultimately, that the mother wasn’t a monster at all, just a loving adult too frightened to show her daughter how she feels. Maybe when Gerwig pushes past her conscious desire to sugarcoat her subject matter she may figure out what she’s trying to get at and find a fresh dramatic form for it; then, of course, she’ll lose her audience, who won’t want to hear it.
* * *
Writer-director Greta Gerwig’s gently quirky, put-upon-princess fantasy coming-of-age film, Lady Bird, with its lovable plucky heroine, the self-styled Lady Bird, fits right into the present moment, hungry for victim winners. That it doesn’t really hang together, being pretty much an assemblage of bits and pieces of movies and television shows past, with its cliché sensitive open-mindedness, not only doesn’t bother audiences, but they haven’t even noticed how clunky, shopworn, and cheesy its material is; the triteness may actually be part of the appeal. The reviews to a number have been enthralled with its titular, unsinkable, pert protagonist, insisting that the film’s every predictable “beat” – to use the current favored lingo for “plot” and “characterization” – is utterly “clear eyed,” “real,” and “true to life,” though I doubt even Gerwig intended it to be understood in strictly realistic terms. It’s fairy-tale nostalgia closer in tone to movies like Rushmore, Napoleon Dynamite, or Ghost World.
Not that the movie is all bad.
For one, it isn’t dull; it has a quick frothy pace. Gerwig’s learned to use some of the studied framing and blocking Wes Anderson does, to vacuum pack her world and comment on the characters’ skewed viewpoints, but she’s not as heavy-handed about it; the figures in her movie aren’t made into colorful puppet beings, though they are slightly flattened and stylized for comic effect. All the performances are more or less good. Saoirse Ronan keeps her American accent without seeming to strain at it. She and Laurie Metcalf, playing Lady Bird’s mother Marion, are able to get a good rhythm going between them in a few scenes, which makes up for the shallowness of the writing and the fact that the two women don’t really match up as mother and daughter – Ronan’s so pale and angular she never looks anything but European, which, I suppose, adds to the princessiness she exudes and is probably what audiences love about her.
Yet despite Ronan’s handling her American accent dexterously, it seems to have taken all her concentration. There’s nothing underneath her line readings. In a character so ferociously determined to live up to her greatest expectations, a kind of modern-day Hilda Wangle in search of castles in the air, there ought to be a desperate Bovaryism coming through. Not that the intent of the movie is to satirize Lady Bird the way Flaubert satirized his heroine. It basks in her glow, delights in her chirping theatricality, her inappropriate whimsical capriciousness. Ronan’s conception of her character is so dully optimistic that her attitude practically lubricates Lady Bird’s progression from youthful eccentricity to conventionalized adulthood, and the corny ease of it is almost depressing. The banality of her character’s personal triumphs might have been mitigated somewhat if Ronan were able to give us the emotional underpinnings that actually motivated a real girl to reject her mother by changing her name; someone who’d blatantly steal her math teacher’s grade book and lie to get better marks; yet who’d subjugate herself to her boyfriend and play daddy’s girl to get what she wants. Greta Gerwig as an actor could have gotten by with this, I think; brought the willful neurotic oddball elements together in a genuine way. Based on her various performances, it’s easy to imagine how these opposed qualities might function as a single persona, from the charismatic bravado Gerwig demonstrated in the entertaining nothing of a horror movie House of the Devil (2009) to the wounded, soulfully passive young woman she plays in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg (2010), a character who lets Ben Stiller walk all over her because she perceives something deep and genuine in him, maybe because nobody’s ever treated her that well. The toughness, the sharp intelligence, the vulnerability, the anxiety all exist in Gerwig; fused together, the audience could understand how Lady’s Bird’s frightened sensitivity fueled her heedless, reckless, self-serving myopia and not left us picking over the bones of Ronan’s insufferable forthright cuteness. But the problem has also got to be with Gerwig as a director. She may not understand her own material deeply enough to know how to dramatize these qualities in herself through her heroine – possibly because her biggest aim was to keep the audience on Lady Bird’s side. She’s soft on the character; she’s soft on herself too. Gerwig tries to show us how deep and grown up Lady Bird has become by having her respond to Catholicism as shiny poetry. Lady Bird thus acquires her family-friendly epiphany without actually being saved, which says everything.
The movie takes place in Sacramento, California during Lady Bird’s senior year of high school, 2002–2003, at a ritzy private Catholic school where her mother has installed her against her will. Notably, Lady Bird claims the only interesting thing about this particular year is its being a palindrome, even though the movie begins less than a year after 9-11 and only about seven months before the beginning of the Iraq war – were teens really this oblivious? And there’s practically no internet or cell phones in Gerwig’s world either. I suppose it’s meant to impart a kind of “timeless” effect to the film.
The movie has been done as a series of whipped-up episodic subplots, each of which has its own little arc neatly worked out as a teensy life lesson. Everything’s banged into place, overlapped and concluded in fully rounded, unlifelike fashion so that Gerwig’s heroine Lady Bird can come around to a “mature” view of life, signaling decisively by the end that she’s all growed up. If only life’s subplots were as neat and easily interpreted as in this movie. Gerwig bookends the body of the film, with a prologue and epilogue that set up and pay off on the main character’s having figured herself out, hence the movie’s title. In the prologue, Lady Bird – that is, Christine McPherson – and her mother, Marion, are on a drive looking at prospective colleges for Lady Bird. Both are in tears over the ending of the audio book version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, a real bonding moment between them, but then almost immediately they start bickering. Lady Bird insists she wants to go to an artsy college in the north “where culture is,” and her mother responds bitingly that this plan is unrealistic because it’s too expensive, because Lady Bird’s grades aren’t good enough, and because she simply doesn’t have the discipline; oh, and it’s snobby too. Things get worse when Lady Bird formally announces that, henceforth, she will be known by the ludicrous name of Lady Bird. Marion tells her that this is dumb and insults her so insistently that the girl implausibly throws herself out of the fast-moving vehicle, breaking her arm. Then we get the film’s titles over the interior of Lady Bird’s school chapel.
In the epilogue, we see Lady Bird at that college in New York. It’s not quite what she thought it would be, though. She calls her mother after an incident with alcohol in a trumped-up “character crisis” moment, to tell her mother she’s decided to take back her original name, Christine; that she realizes all her mother did for her and just wants to say how much she, Christine, loves her. So endeth the batch of After School Specials this film represents.
I’m tempted to think these flanking scenes, especially the prologue, were late additions, rewritten during the process of filming, and that they were forced on to give the movie shape as well as an uplifting resolution – this seems particularly true of the concluding phone-call scene, which really seems shoehorned in. None of what happens to Lady Bird and Marion between these scenes derives from the logic of them. There, points are further muddled by the fact that the mother-daughter dynamic hasn’t been fully dramatized, because Gerwig hasn’t entirely thought through what she’s getting at. For one, Metcalf, who is a terrific actor, plays the mother role almost against how it’s written. Based on what the character says and does, she’s clearly neurotic, self-loathing, incapable of giving her daughter any sort of emotional support – but Metcalf tries to portray Marion’s egregious unsupportiveness as down-to-brown-earth tough love, concealing rather than revealing the character.
Metcalf takes off from the idea that Marion, who seems incredibly old to have a seventeen-year-old daughter, is just not where she thought she’d be at this stage of her life. She has an adopted son still living at home; she’s about to lose her daughter; her husband (played by Tracy Letts) is laid off and develops depression. Metcalf, a nurse, is overworked in the extreme, doing double shifts to try to make up for lost income. Out of stress she’s become a crabby, controlling ogre, griping about everything, from how many towels people are permitted per bath to cleaning and cooking; she’s constantly carping at Lady Bird. She goes out of her way on many occasions to sabotage the girl’s sense of self-worth and thwart her ambitions. In the first scene, we get the feeling she’s acting this way because she’s worried about Lady Bird, afraid that if she isn’t hard on her then the girl won’t get it together and may wind up making all the same mistakes Marion did. Yet the central conflict between them doesn’t bear this reading out.
When Lady Bird refuses to accept her mother’s insistence she go to a cheaper local college and applies to dream schools behind her mother’s back, with father Letts’ help; when she gets on the waiting list to NYU, is at last accepted, figures out how to finance the venture, what does her mother do? Instead of congratulating Lady Bird and telling her how proud she is, as just about any other parent would, she’s furious and refuses to speak to her. Marion’s still so angry the day Lady Bird leaves for college she won’t even see her off at the airport, despite Lady Bird’s begging her to do so. Now, this is a very severe mom move for Marion to make no matter how annoyed she may be with her daughter, and I maintain that this particular mother would never have made it, for the simple reason she’d lose the upper hand in the martyred indignation game the two are playing and she’d then owe an apology to her daughter, who’d have grist for the resentment mill for years to come. No, Marion’s smart enough to play this game far more slyly than Gerwig’s written her. She’d absolutely see her daughter off and make sure to pester her with a passive-aggressive guilt trip the entire time.
Also, at a deeper level, this choice throws off the logic of the last scene: after the wretched way her mother acted, one wonders why in the world Lady Bird would ever call her mother and tell her she knows how much the woman’s done for her. It’s utterly implausible. Perhaps if she were being sarcastic it might work in a cool, edgy way, but Gerwig’s clearly too earnest to try anything that provocative; her instinct for redemption has made her a success after all. Another curious thing is the way Gerwig rigs up the poignant phone call so that Lady Bird doesn’t talk directly to her mother. Marion is out at the time, and Lady Bird has to leave a message on the machine. Doing the scene this way means that Lady Bird’s mother never gets to tell her daughter how sorry she is for her behavior; that she actually did rush back to the airport to say goodbye but was too late; that she loves Lady Bird very much and is proud of her achievements. Possibly Gerwig wanted the scene to rhyme with Marion’s tearful return to the airport – suggesting that though these women may love each other, they’re so stubborn they’ll probably always manage to miss one another somehow. Or maybe Gerwig sensed that a totally upbeat, all’s-forgiven ending would compromise the material at a fundamental level, wind up too sappy even for her, and so tried to work it so things read a couple ways, satisfying an audience’s sentimental needs on the one hand yet leaving it unclear ultimately whether Marion loves her daughter or not – we never hear her say this unreservedly in the world of the film, so it remains weirdly uncertain. One other terrible possibility is that Gerwig wants to show that Lady Bird can act with responsible tenderness toward her mother even through the teeth of her mother’s inability to give – that would be the put-upon princess way to land things.
For a while, I thought I might be misreading the film’s mixed cues until I heard an interview with Saoirse Ronan on the BBC Radio 5 show, Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo film reviews, where she herself pointed out that, on the page, Metcalf’s character could definitely seem rather unpleasant, but that Metcalf had found a way to make this unpleasantness come out of a mother’s love.1. In the same interview, Ronan also claimed that one of the things she really appreciated about Gerwig’s script was that it left so much unsaid, since according to her, movies have a tendency to “over explain” things. That’s right, I thought, Eugene O’Neill might really have had a good play on his hands in Long Day’s Journey into Night if only he hadn’t larded it up with all those scenes of the characters talking about exactly how they felt. The real problem with movies, of course, is that they’re weighed down with plot exposition while skimping on motivation. That is, film characters rarely ever say what they would in life. Half the time you watch a movie and want to yell at the screen: “Hey, why don’t you just ask …. [fill in whatever question would clear the situation right up].” Lady Bird, in not bothering to bring out why precisely the mother and others behave as they do, is littered with this sort of psychological lacuna.
For instance: in the scene where Lady Bird and her mother shop for a prom dress together, her mother can’t stop picking at her. She proceeds to undermine Lady Bird’s looks, taste, and judgment, landing a beautiful passive aggressive uppercut when Lady Bird complains her mother won’t tell her she’s pretty. Marion says she didn’t know the girl cared what she thought. This prompts Lady Bird to ask if her mother even likes her. “I love you,” her mother insists. “But do you like me?” Lady Bird asks. Her mother stammers a couple of seconds and responds with, “I just want you to be the best version of you that you can be.” Meaning: “No, I don’t like you.” Again I thought, would this mother really say that? Surely she’d dodge with a slick politic answer such as, “Of course, I like you a lot, though I don’t always like how you act.” That would have lobbed the subtextual ball back onto Lady Bird’s side of the court rather nicely. Instead she simply makes her feelings obvious. Even more unbelievably, the comment somehow doesn’t provoke an ugly protracted argument, as it would in life. Lady Bird merely responds with one of the more ghastly bits of cute indie movie quirk. “What if this is my best version?” After which Gerwig just cuts to the next scene, as if there was anywhere to go after something like that.
This not saying what a teenager would actually say is probably at its most glaring in the faked-up drama that occurs after Marion finds out Lady Bird’s been applying to eastern colleges instead of the nearby one she thought they’d agreed on. Gerwig, who is not always a whiz making things happen, clumsily uses a casual drive-by extra to get the conflict going. After Lady Bird graduates high school, the family is out at a restaurant, having a celebratory dinner; someone walks in off the street and says something to the effect of: “Oh, hey there Lady Bird. How’s that waiting list for the college you applied to that your mom didn’t know you were trying to get into coming along?” Strange Gerwig wouldn’t have had Lady Bird’s dad, whom she’d sworn to secrecy when she elicited his help, spill the beans, which would have been far more dramatic and revealing of the family’s stunted workings. In any case, we next see Lady Bird sniveling to her mother a day or so later, pathetically saying she knows she’s a horrible person and begging her mother to talk to her, but to no avail. You know inherently watching this scene that it’s all wrong. Perhaps Lady Bird might have started off groveling, but when her mother wouldn’t come around she’d have gone for the jugular, accusing Marion of wanting to sabotage her life because Marion’s jealous of her prospects and wants the girl to be as much of a frustrated failure as she is – and from what we can read of the mother’s motivations it might be true. But Gerwig either hasn’t witnessed this sort of domestic nastiness or she hasn’t got the stomach for it. She keeps Lady Bird’s confrontations at the girlish, audience-friendly level.
In an interview Greta Gerwig gave NPR’s Fresh Air, the host Terry Gross played the prom dress scene and asked the director why Lady Bird’s mother wouldn’t say she loved her daughter and liked her. Gerwig answered: “Well, I think she’s terrified that if she says you’re good just as you are that she won’t continue to grow.”2 You hear that and realize Gerwig really hasn’t got an inkling of what she’s doing, because this simply does not accord with Marion’s behavior. During the course of the movie, Lady Bird accomplishes all of her goals. She dumps two boyfriends, gets her driver’s license, is flattered by a nun she pranked, gets her true friend back, is accepted into one of the colleges she dreams of attending, etc., etc., and her mother never offers her any encouragement whatsoever; in fact, her daughter’s independent streak makes her angry. So in what sense does she want the girl to “grow”?
At another point Marion meets Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, Danny O’Neill (Lucas Hedges). The first time Lady Bird spoke to him she informed him blithely, as she does everything, that she comes from “the wrong side of the tracks.” When he’s introduced to Marion, he laughs, saying he’d thought this “wrong side of tracks” business was merely figurative, but then he’d actually had to cross train tracks in order to get to her house. Gerwig here cuts to a close-up of Metcalf’s face so we can see that part of her dies inside when she hears this. Following that, in yet another underwritten argument, Marion throws the comment back in her daughter’s face. Lady Bird’s response is to say she was just kidding, but I wondered why she didn’t answer the woman with some daughterly sarcasm. “What’s the big deal? All you fucking do is talk about how goddamned poor we are. Now it’s suddenly a big family secret?” Indeed, why does Marion care? That look on her face when Hedges mentions the family’s poverty has stuck with me more than any other image in the film, epitomizing how un-fun and unreadable a character Metcalf’s is, despite Gerwig’s claiming she wanted the audience to “know exactly where that mother is.…”3 Sadly, the only time we get a taste of how likable a performer Metcalf can be is when she interacts with people other than her family. Then she’s warm, concerned, friendly – even when they interrupt her carping at Lady Bird. It’s one of Gerwig’s defter touches, though I wasn’t quite sure what I was meant to take from it. Does this show us that Marion can be lively in situations where the pressure’s off or that she’s unable to give her daughter the same understanding she gives strangers? Possibly it’s an act for the outside world so they’ll think she’s cool instead of the neurotic mess she is with her daughter – this last probably goes best with Metcalf’s embarrassment over Lady Bird’s sharing the family’s financial troubles with her boyfriend, but you can’t quite tell.
I found myself wondering again and again what the hell was wrong with this character, and I’ve come to the conclusion that there are really only two possibilities that fit her actions; it may be a combination of them. Either the woman is bent on controlling her daughter’s life because she loves her and is afraid of losing her when she goes away to school, which means that Marion is essentially negging Lady Bird in order to undermine her search for independence – scarily, the more positive reading – or else the woman feels so terrible about the way her life’s gone she can’t help seeing her daughter as the embodiment of her disappointments and failures, causing her to lash out at Lady Bird to make herself feel better. Both ideas are dark and interesting, but Gerwig fights against this pessimistic strain in the material without overhauling the entire structure.
Something similar happened at the end of the film Diary of a Teenage Girl (2015), a far more truthful and audacious picture than Gerwig’s, which ought to have become a milestone in female-themed cinema. As with Lady Bird, it too wussed out on the mother-daughter dynamic. Kristen Wiig, who plays the mother with bracing spitefulness, neglects her daughter (Bel Powley, in a marvelous performance) to concentrate on enjoying her swinging ’70s lifestyle, until she discovers her daughter’s been sleeping with her boyfriend. Biliously jealous, she gets quite nasty. For a little while anyway, then the writer-director Marielle Heller lets mother and daughter off the hook in a way that feels both abrupt and unsatisfying. Out of nowhere the mother seems to forgive the daughter; the daughter doesn’t attack her mother at all but sobs an apology and, at end, confidently tells the audience she realizes that she’s better than the mother’s boyfriend whose physical services – along with those of many other males – she’s been enjoying throughout the picture, whom she tries to characterize as ultimately pathetic. I think part of the problem is that since the ’70s there’s developed a taboo against blaming mothers for anything, or women in general – the days of Psycho are long past. It’s seen now as misogynistic to make mothers look bad; if a woman does terrible things to her children, there’s a new liberal jump to blame the patriarchy and search for some kind of sexual abuse in the woman’s background to explain what’s gone wrong with her, which is not feminist but infantilizing. How can women be equal if they don’t own their share of guilt? There may also be more to it than that, though. Both movies deal with a kind of hidden maternal malignancy that is fundamentally frightening. Mothers bring us into the world, shape our view of the world, tell us what’s right and wrong; in essence, mothers create the basis for the perpetuation of civilization itself. To blame mothers is, in a sense, to blame all that we are, which surely explains the pop culture reflex to deny the reality of horrible mothers. The internal structure of Gerwig’s movie is, I think, unconsciously designed to do just this: evoke the monster mother and then deflect the daughterly hostility she provokes by turning things around to insist, ultimately, that the mother wasn’t a monster at all, just a loving adult too frightened to show her daughter how she feels. Maybe when Gerwig pushes past her conscious desire to sugarcoat her subject matter she may figure out what she’s trying to get at and find a fresh dramatic form for it; then, of course, she’ll lose her audience, who won’t want to hear it.
* * *
But what of the other characters? Lady Bird’s fat best friend Beanie Feldstein, played with quiet warmth by Julie Steffans, is, despite the actor’s charm, a soft guinea pig of a character with no autonomous life. This pathetic girl exists merely to dote on Lady Bird and to teach her lessons about friendship, loyalty, and humility. The whole story arc with Lady Bird betraying Beanie in order to climb the social ladder by getting in good with the pretty, rich popular girl, played rather listlessly by Odeya Rush, is thoroughly banal. We’ve seen it a thousand times over in films like Heathers or television shows like The Facts of Life and The Brady Bunch, where this theme, oddly, played far less condescendingly than it does in Lady Bird. When Lady Bird discovers on cue that her new friends are mean and shallow – the last straw being that they don’t like Dave Mathews (!) and don’t want to go to the prom (!!) – I became embarrassed for the movie. Especially as Lady Bird there and then, on the way to the prom, breaks with her boyfriend and goes straight to Beanie’s house, where her fat friend is just sitting there crying, as if waiting for Lady Bird to show up and acknowledge her. The poor girl doesn’t even give Lady Bird crap for being such a terrible friend; the two are just so happy to be reunited they spontaneously decide to go to the prom together for a magical evening of true sisterhood, even though what all this silliness shows us is that Lady Bird has no respect for Beanie and that Beanie doesn’t respect herself. We’re meant to love Lady Bird in this moment, but the episode seems vain and self-congratulatory – maybe because Beanie has nothing to offer Lady Bird but the possibility of doing charity-penance. It’s odd, too, that feminist filmmakers should fall back on these corny best friend characters (Gabby Hoffmann played a particularly sinister gorgon in the movie Obvious Child (2014), her sole purpose being to hover around the adorably lovable protagonist (Jenny Slate) and justify her every self-serving whim.4 And why has Gerwig made Beanie so squashed down and passive? Couldn’t we have been spared yet another sad sack fat girl for something more interesting? I myself knew many a chunky chick in high school, and they were quite vivid, aggressive characters that never had a problem snagging dick, if they wanted it.
Then there are the two boyfriends. Lucas Hedges, the first, is a boy Lady Bird sees in theater class and who is obviously gay. She watches him lustfully as he auditions show tunes and you think: that dude’s gay. When he refuses to put the moves on Lady Bird because he respects her too much, you think, “Yeah, because you’re gay.” A bit later, Lady Bird tires of waiting in line to pee at a kid’s music club and heads over to the boys’ bathroom, and the second she does so you think: oh, now she’s going to catch her boyfriend with another guy. And what d’ya know, folks? Lady Bird opens the door and there Hedges is, perfectly framed, making out hard with another dude, which seems not terribly believable even by sitcom standards since he’d almost certainly not have risked something like that behind an un-lockable door. The way Gerwig’s written the episode just about turns it into a rite for girls – now here’s Lady Bird’s first gay boyfriend, which comes right after her first pair of high heel shoes. But I was even more skeptical of the later scene in which Hedges tracks Lady Bird down to her job at a coffee shop and pours his heart out to her in the alley, apologizing and crying and begging her not to tell anyone about his being gay. Lady Bird, despite her occasional self-centered willfulness, is a lovably liberal gal – as demonstrated by her very vocal reaction to the Catholic school’s anti-abortion seminar – therefore cannot, I repeat cannot be anti-gay. She tells an emotional Danny that he’s great, she’s happy for him, and promises she won’t tell anyone. I was like, really? So you were out with your best friend, caught your guy with another boy, and somehow neglected to mention this fact to your friend that same night? It would have been a gutsier move on Gerwig’s part if Lady Bird hadn’t reacted in the right liberal way, got off an angry homophobic crack, and confessed that she’d already spread the news about Hedges all over school. Ooops! It would also have been interesting if Gerwig hadn’t made Lady Bird so clearly pro-choice, and if the nuns hadn’t found Lady Bird so charming and vivacious – Rosalind Russell in Ida Lupino’s The Trouble with Angels (1966), which Lady Bird in some ways resembles, never smiled so on Hayley Mills’ insurrectionist behavior, I assure you.
Yet the Danny stuff is no more blandly obvious than the depiction of her relations with her second love interest, a character named Kyle Schieble, played with lugubrious self-love by Timothée Chalamet. He has a romantic mop of hair, plays in a band, and sits around reading deep books to show how authentic he is. At one point he says he doesn’t like money. His response to Jenna’s and Lady Bird’s plan to inflict a prank on one of the nun teachers is the ridiculously street, “That’s hella tight.” It took me a while to realize all this was supposed to make him an absurd phony poseur, like the lecherous predator intellectual in Funny Face. Needless to say I found him more likable than Lady Bird. The scene in which she and Chalamet do it, when she climbs on him and then he orgasms two seconds after he penetrates her, was another embarrassment. Firstly, it was much funnier when it happened to Jennifer Jason Leigh during her moment with premature ejaculator Robert Romanus in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) – and far more realistic as well, because Romanus was definitely physically excited, while Chalamet seems so unmoved by his girl’s charms she has to pretty much initiate the encounter herself; his face barely registers passion when the big moment arrives, which did make me laugh, but only because it was so cartoony.
And who couldn’t agree with Chalamet’s assessment about Lady Bird’s self-dramatizing histrionics afterward, when she gets upset over what a callously unromantic, lying little womanizer he is? He tells her she’s just determined to feel bad, and he’s right, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Later, after Lady Bird’s put a great deal of effort into planning her prom night, Kyle, on a Lady Birdlike whim, during the drive there, says he doesn’t want to go because the prom’s lame; and I thought, he’s right, it is lame. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if for once a movie heroine was happy to blow the prom off and did so? Finally, Chalamet snaps at Lady Bird to turn off the radio because he can’t stand the musician Dave Mathews, and there again I was on his side.5 Lady Bird’s being so offended by his snobby rudeness and breaking with him over his good taste made me question her judgment, and the movie’s. Frankly, I couldn’t help wondering why we were meant to think Chalamet’s character is such an annoying poseur when Lady Bird herself is the consummate poseur. All she does in the film is lie and try to pretend to be someone she isn’t, until at the end she plumps for conventional values, friendship, motherhood and Catholic spectacle.
In an interview with Audie Cornish, co-host of All Things Considered, Greta Gerwig said: “I think I’m interested in writing and letting . . . really female characters go too far because I think as women, we’re taught to really (laughter) . . . really keep it together and not be too much and not go too far and not be too loud or too crazy or too ambitious. And I think I like having the space as a writer to explore characters who didn’t seem to get that memo because there’s a freedom to it even when they’re failing.”6 The problem with this, aside from the fact her generalizations about gender aren’t true, is that despite a few questionable stunts Lady Bird always comes out on top as our princess love object. She never fails; we’re never seriously meant to question her behavior. She steals one of her teachers’ grade books, throws it away to save her grade point average, and it’s presented as spunky, rather like the egregious charm-mongering scene after Lady Bird turns eighteen and she celebrates by purchasing a pack of cigarettes, a Playgirl magazine, and a lottery ticket. Cigarette dangling from a corner of her mouth, she stands around on the street blatantly reading the magazine so that any passerby can see she’s looking at nude hunks. It says nothing about her character, but is simply intended as delightful whimsy, such as when Lady Bird and her friend Beanie eat all the cheese in the house and talk about Lady Bird’s hopes and dreams.
Another supposedly endearing lack of ethics concerns the tired subplot of Lady Bird’s trying to get in good with a hot rich bad girl, Jenna, who wears short skirts and talks Lady Bird into helping her prank the nun who chastised her about them. Lady Bird, who doesn’t want anyone to know how poor she is, has been having her father drop her off down the street from the school and tells Jenna that she lives in her favorite house – an ugly blue thing – owned by the grandmother of her gay ex-boyfriend. Eventually Jenna calls Lady Bird (oh right, there is a cell phone!), announces that she’s standing right outside the door, and the jig’s up, though this whole line seemed rather perfunctory. Lady Bird apologizes profusely and the girl seems to accept, but when Lady Bird asks her if they’re still friends the girl says that she guesses as long as Lady Bird’s dating Kyle they’ll probably see each other around. In this very odd way Gerwig manages to take a situation where Lady Bird is completely at fault and turn it into a comment on what a shallow bitch Jenna is! Not that we much believe in Jenna’s vacuous response. And really, if Gerwig didn’t have the wit to create an entertaining mean girl type, couldn’t she have given us an upper-class female character that turned out to be less of a materialist than the poor-girl heroine? It does happen on occasion. But then nothing can be allowed to outshine Lady Bird’s infernal winsomeness.
At bottom, Lady Bird is a retrograde valentine to girly niceness. Basically, the movie is a box of chocolates in which you can predict every single thing you’re going to get. And it’s hit a nerve with filmgoers nationwide. Is this the daydream of feminine innocence audiences are craving after so much harsh sexual reality? Let’s hope women can figure out a way to get over themselves and start giving us a real expression of their experiences devoid of this kind of cutesy cheerleading and self-love.
- http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09r7bmd [↩]
- https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=564579012 [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Sarah Paulson was almost equally ghastly in the 2015 female-scripted Carol. [↩]
- This is part of a mini trend in movies for characters to show how adorably relatable they are by liking bad music. Paul Rudd and Jason Segel bond over Rush in I Love You, Man. Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph loved Wilson Phillips in Bridesmaids. Perhaps most awful of all, there is a frighteningly un-ironic musical scene built around the Back Street Boys singing in heaven at the end of This Is the End. [↩]
- https://www.npr.org/templates/transcript/transcript.php?storyId=587121715 [↩]