I don’t spend much time thinking about teenage girls. The last time I did I was as a teenage boy, when I was scared shitless by them. I didn’t understand what they thought, why they thought it, why they always looked at me like I was an infected scab, and why I cared so much about them. Nowadays, about the only time I think about them is when I read a story about some creepy old dude running away with one, and I wonder why the hell he would do that. Teenage girls are unpleasant, unattractive and unformed, sort of like cocoons from which beautiful women might later emerged. I guess I subscribe to the John Spencer and the Blues Explosion philosophy: “A lot of you girls, sixteen, seventeen, man, you just don’t know what’s happenin’. I’ll take a full-grown woman…” That is not to say I agree with everything the Blues Explosion said; I am still ambivalent about whiffing pant legs.
What I’m trying to say is, I’m not an expert on teenage girls. Now that I think about it, I doubt anyone is. Not even teenage girls. I doubt there are articles in medical journals written by them. The Relative Effect in a Closed Environment of my Parents Being So Totally Lame.
The grassfuckers and anus-gulpers in Hollywood definitely don’t get them. They imagine them as models in their early 20s with more confidence than is humanly possible, usually living in perfect homes, driving convertibles and speaking in complete sentences. Worst of all, as fully formed human beings who can single-mindedly focus on their missions. I know for sure that teenage girls aren’t that.
So, I was reluctant to enter a theater this week to see Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig. I don’t even want to sit near the teenagers at Wendy’s, so spending an hour-and-a-half with them sounded like torture, like not only sitting by those teenagers at Wendy’s, but also eating their chili.
It wasn’t. Lady Bird was fucking delightful. This is a damn good movie. I still don’t get teenaged girls, but the movie is so genuine and so plausible that I may have gained a little understanding of teenaged girls. Which makes me appreciate full-grown women even more.
Christine McPherson (Sairorse Ronan) is a graduating senior at an all-girl Catholic high school in Sacramento. She prefers to be called Lady Bird, not for any good reason; she’s just putting on airs, trying to redefine herself as separate from her parents. It’s a ritzy fucking school, but she’s not a ritzy girl. Her family struggles to make ends meet and lives a life of settling for less. Her father suffers from depression (Tracy Letts) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is so scared Lady Bird will fail at life that she tries to control her every move, as though any wrong step will be the one that leads her into oblivion.
Lady Bird is that cocoon I mentioned. There’s a smart, funny and occasionally wise woman in there, but it has to eat its way through the all the layers of bullshit surrounding her. I never doubted she’d figure shit out. The movie never doubts it, either. Only she and the people around her do, because they don’t have the five-mile view of an audience. The characters are stuck in the moments.
Lady Bird wants out of California, to get as far away as she can. To her, that’s a liberal arts college on the other coast, something her family can’t afford and she probably can’t get into. It represents an ideal, something she has imagined to be far more sophisticated and welcoming than the Podunk she lives in. She’s wrong, of course. Other than a few vocational school and tiny community colleges, universities—no matter where they are--are loaded with phonies and pompous assholes who talk about shit they won’t truly understand for a few more decades. The price of a school has no bearing on how juvenile its underclassmen are, just on how pushy the parents are.
Her mom, fearing failure, wants her to settle for a local school with less prestige, and close enough to keep her anchored, unable to drown, but also unable to fly. Like most teenagers, Lady Bird thinks she wants freedom that she’s not ready for. She makes terrible decisions, sometimes knowing that when she makes them, but also knowing they will piss someone off. She doesn’t yet appreciate that all those layers of bullshit she has to eat through are there to keep her from soaring until she’s ready.
That’s the message this movie conveys so damn well. First, that parents are well-intentioned, no matter how fucking incompetent they are. Second, that kids should be seen for what they can be, not for the stupid shit they currently do. The second lesson is hard to learn, especially when some punk on a hoverboard rubs mayonnaise in your hair just because you passed out under the Garrison Street underpass.
Lady Bird tries on different things. A theater kid, a girlfriend, and one of the cool kids. None of it sticks. But each failed experiment gets her closer to understanding who she is and what she does well.
Lady Bird is a remarkable movie, never phony and never pushy, just telling a story that’s universal and interesting because it feels true. The cinematography is flat and muted, like the way the main character sees her surroundings. Ronan is fucking amazing. I guess she’s actually in her early 20s, but she looks and acts like a teen. The movie lets her have acne and stringy hair. She carries herself with the slightly stooped shoulders of someone who wants to be defiant, but isn’t really sure. Metcalf, as the mother, is equally damn good. She is weathered and tired, weak-chinned, and so exhausted by her daughter that their communications have devolved into screaming and commands. You always know, though, that she loves her daughter, she just doesn’t know how to express it.
The periphery is filled with characters given room to be human. The priests and nuns at the high school are sensitive, caring and flawed, and not cartoonish oafs. One of them thinks it’s funny when Lady Bird decorates her car with “Just Married to Jesus” tin cans and streamers. Some of the other high schoolers feel a little out of central casting, such as the gay one, the rich one and the pretentious one. They get a little room to breathe, but their story lines don’t feel as fresh.
Those are minor missteps, though, compared to how fucking great Lady Bird and the people around her are. Five Fingers for the first teenaged girl I ever kind of, sort of understood. I'd love to meet her again in ten years.