Greta Gerwig’s semi-autiobiographical film set in Sacramento, California, is a coming-of-age story about a straight-talking teenage girl who sassily insists on the self-ascribed name “Lady Bird”. From the very first scenes of the film we are struck by Lady Bird’s brash confidence as she launches herself out of a moving car during an argument with her mother. Her audacity soon translates into her love life too, boldly seeking out her crush Danny, star of the (Catholic) school musical, and later daring to ditch her prom date in favour of her long-lost friend Julie.
Borrowing and subverting cinematic tropes, Lady Bird develops from a could-be romcom into a touching story focusing on the protagonist’s (rather rocky) relationships with her friends and family. The rapid transition from Lady Bird’s snappy arguing with her mother to their joint cooing over thrift shop dresses serves to represent the film’s overall volatile temperament. From fallouts and betrayals, to joking and reconciliation, Lady Bird takes the viewer on an emotional rollercoaster without succumbing to the OMG-melodrama of typical Hollywood productions.
In this respect, much of the film’s appeal does not lie in its action, but rather the characters’ idiosyncrasies and witty dialogue. Lady Bird’s amusingly awkward sexual encounters with boys will resonate with young female viewers worldwide, and her whimsical purchase of a Playgirl magazine on turning 18 acts as a playful wink towards female porn/masturbation which is significantly underrepresented in cinema. Other instances of unconventional comedy include the Catholic school mistress’s unexpected amusement at Lady Bird’s prank (“Just Married to Jesus” car decorations), and the scene in which she and Julie are pictured upside down while discussing masturbation and snacking on communion wafers.
Despite Lady Bird’s efforts to fit in and be “cool”, she ends up returning to her faithful friend Julie in a touching scene of reconciliation. Interestingly, Julie – living in a modest apartment with her single mother – does not share the middle-class background of her wealthier schoolmates, and neither does Lady Bird. Influenced by her mother’s obsession with outward appearances, Lady Bird seems to suffer from the class anxiety that is so rife in the US today. Most notably, she shuns her home on the “wrong side of the tracks” and convinces (for a short time) the school’s “cool girl” that she lives in her extravagant “dream house” of Sacramento. For an ambitious character like Lady Bird, who comes from a working-class family with a father recently made redundant, the “American Dream” seem frustratingly unattainable. Her reaction to this class anxiety consists in a determination to be accepted into an East Coast college, which stands in striking contrast with her mother Marion’s defeatist preference for inexpensive local alternatives.
Many critics have claimed the film’s main theme to be that of a mother-daughter conflict. I would add that its roots lie in Lady Bird and Marion’s differing reactions to social inequality: determination versus despair. Unlike her mother, Lady Bird recognises that she can use the system to her advantage and apply for financial support to help her realise her dream of attending the university she desires. Despite her aspirations, however, the film’s ending is far from perfect. Yet for me this is what makes it so special. Lady Bird teaches us to live life with a pinch of salt and embrace it in all its imperfections – whether these be a commandeering mother, working-class status or disrespectful teenage boyfriends.
It is interesting, yet unsurprising, to note that a film encouraging identification with an underprivileged (yet empowered) female protagonist was not appreciated widely enough to win an Oscar. Considering America’s current political and cinematographic climates, perhaps sexism and social inequality are issues considered too sensitive to be depicted with Gerwig’s sarkiness and wit. This is a shame, but should be taken with a pinch of salt by those of us who appreciate films like Lady Bird. Society isn’t perfect, and neither should be cinema. Maybe Hollywood will learn this some day.