Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut, Lady Bird, has become a cultural phenomenon. Earning 100% on Rotten Tomatoes while garnering the most reviews in history, it would be an understatement to say that this indie film far exceeded commercial expectations. When I heard about this film, I wondered, how did this subtle look into the mundane life of a teenager, a topic that has been done many times over, hit a note with audiences across the nation, when films like The Edge of Seventeen and The D.U.F.F. did better than expected, but not even close to as well as Lady Bird? I figured, maybe it had the mental illness strains that The Perks of Being a Wallflower thrived on, or a tragic love story like The Fault In Our Stars, but it didn’t have either of these. So what made this film so special?
The teenage years are riddles with internal drama, so most coming of age films thrive on the protagonist being extremely angsty to the point where they blow everything out of proportion so that the conflicts throughout the storyline feel heightened and intensified. Lady Bird doesn’t do that. The protagonist, Lady Bird, is an angsty teenager, sure, but the storyline isn’t propelled by her tantrums and the world falling apart around her every time something doesn’t work out or every time she gets embarrassed. Instead, we are shown snippets of daily events, ones we have all faced and dealt with in similar manners, and she handles them the same way we deal with them, but with maybe a little more humor. This movie isn’t the cathartic experience that The Edge of Seventeen was. Lady Bird never does or says anything that we wish we had said when we experienced a similar event. Instead, she reacts in an honest and relatable way. It’s quiet and a bit nonchalant with a side of internal suffering, but there are no big revenge schemes or aggressive grudges. When her best friend and her have a falling out, they say some choice words, but end up making up in a very mundane way. When she catches her boyfriend making out with a guy, she doesn’t tell the entire school in order to get him back and then learns a lesson about how you shouldn’t out someone. Instead, she keeps it to herself and ends up being a shoulder for him to cry on as he struggles with having to stifle his sexuality. And the popular girl isn’t this Regina George caricature. She’s a real person who, yes is a bit snooty, but is never over the top. She doesn’t ditch Lady Bird because she’s poor, like Lady Bird thinks she will, but instead does so because she lied. That’s not the archetype of a queen bee. It’s this subtleness that makes the audience respect the film while connecting to it. Conflict is important in a film. It will always drive story forward, but Lady Bird proves that conflict doesn’t have to be loud and abrasive. It can be an understated comment sent into the void, in hopes that someone will relate to their personal struggle.
Not only is the storyline more relatable, but Lady Bird finally gives us a teenage female protagonist who isn’t consumed by unnecessary selfishness and emotion. Of course she has her moments, like stressing her dad out about paying for an expensive New York college, but I think one of the most important scenes in the film is when Lady Bird stands next to her mother in the kitchen, who is giving her the silent treatment, and apologizes to her, telling her how selfish she is and how she loves her mom and so on. Once again, there was no big lesson she had to learn in order to apologize to her mom or to confess her selfishness, but instead it’s just her naturally feeling guilty and apologetic for how she made her mother feel, something most daughters experience. Speaking as a daughter myself, I don’t think it’s reaching to say that, even if we don’t actually believe we did something wrong, as soon as our mothers make that transition from anger to sadness over something we did (no matter how minuscule), we immediately break down and beg for forgiveness. Anger is fine. Sadness is not. It’s just the nature of the relationship. Just like when Lady Bird and her mother fight while shopping. One minute they’re at each others throats, the next they are gushing over how pretty a dress is. Nothing explodes, Lady Bird isn’t so full of herself that she resents her mother to the point where she does something like steal her car or drink until she’s hospitalized to get back at her. The relationship is honest with ups and downs, with the characters not just being defined by the downs, but also by the ups. It’s easy to exploit negative parts of a relationship to enhance conflict, and the film does this a bit with Lady Bird secretly applying to colleges her mother dissapproves of, but it doesn’t ignore the positive points either. And that is something the audience latches on to, because real life doesn’t just include the scars people leave, but also the warmth they bring. Thus, with Lady Bird reacting appropriately in both positive and negative scenarios, she doesn’t bring that over-the-top selfish behavior that plagues most teenage films with female leads.
So overall, Lady Bird is a special film and hits home with so many people in a way that similar movies don’t because it doesn’t scream out “THE WORLD OWES ME AND IT’S ALL YOUR FAULT SO LET ME DESTROY EVERYTHING.” Instead, it provides the audience with an honest representation of most female teenagers and how they react to the different relationships in their lives and the different experiences they face. Women are strong and more often than not, when we go through embarrassing moments or frustrating fights with our parents, we deal with them and move on. We don’t usually fester in the frustration for years, like most coming of age films with female leads seem to portray. Sometimes our pain is loud and sometimes it’s quiet, but Lady Bird reminds us that we always seem to take the good with the bad and get through life one day at a time.
Oh and by the way, can we just take a moment to appreciate that this movie isn’t a teen romance? That the high school woman protagonist isn’t just a character built to react to her crushes? What a breath of fresh air.