By: Zach Rynhold | Features  | 

Lady Bird: A Perfect Film at the Perfect Time

When I walked out of my first of many viewings of last year’s La La Land, I confidently announced that it would win the Oscar for Best Picture. Of course, we all know how that turned out. Upon leaving the theater after a screening of Lady Bird, I reflected similarly. Unfortunately, Greta Gerwig’s cinematic masterpiece did not win in any category on Oscar night. If the Academy’s failure to present the film with any of the accolades it deserved has taught me anything, it is that I should probably stop making Oscar predictions.

Lady Bird tells the story of a high-school senior in Sacramento, California. Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who prefers to be called “Lady Bird,” complains to her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), that she wishes she could “live through something,” and aspires to go to college on the East coast, “where culture is.” The film focuses largely on this mother-daughter relationship in the context of Lady Bird’s coming-of-age narrative. It is therefore unsurprising that this film has resonated most strongly with mothers and their maturing daughters. So, you may ask, what compels a 22-year-old male student to share his experience of this film?

For a film to succeed in delivering its underlying message, it must transcend the boundary of the screen. A viewer should not only feel a distant sympathy for a character or situation, but must empathize with a character or situation. The film achieves this connection to its audience through a realistic representation of human experience. Gerwig’s casting plays an instrumental role in this feat. Ronan and Metcalf provide masterful performances, forging the complicated relationship at the film’s heart. The first scene of the film sets the tone for this rapport. As Lady Bird and her mother drive home from a college road-trip, the pair is moved to tears listening to John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Reference to this novel highlights the centrality of California as the culmination of the American Dream, a recurring theme in the film.

As the audiobook ends, Lady Bird attempts to turn on the radio, prompting her mother to request that they let the experience sit with them, rather than reverting to constant stimulation. This, of course, quickly transitions into an argument ranging from Lady Bird’s college aspirations to driving tests. In response, Lady Bird comically throws herself out of the car. This emotional rollercoaster encapsulates the tumult of their close, yet fiery, bond.

Such polarizing encounters between mother and daughter characterize the film, the most sensational of which elicits one of Ronan’s best moments of, if not the film, perhaps her career. As her mother completely ignores her attempts to reconcile after yet another dispute, Lady Bird pleads with her mother to speak to her, berating her own impudence and ungratefulness. Her tearful apology, which receives no response from her mother, is heartrending. Despite their differences, Lady Bird feels incomplete without her mother’s pride in her. As she tells her mother earlier in the film: “I wish that you liked me.” Marion answers: “Of course I love you,” to which Lady Bird asks: “But do you like me?”

The tension underlying these exchanges relates to Lady Bird’s ambition to break out of the confines of home, much to the distaste of her mother who feels underappreciated and unfulfilled as a result. Lady Bird goes as far as risking their relationship in her mission to escape Sacramento, applying to universities on the East Coast behind Marion’s back.

This adolescent desire to leave the nest reflects a broader theme of searching for identity. Lady Bird longs to express herself, hence she changes her name. She yearns to be socially understood and accepted, thus she abandons Julie to befriend Jenna (Odeya Rush), the most popular girl at school. Her drive for fresh experiences mirrors the struggles of aspiring young adults. The film portrays such intricacies of growing up from various perspectives through Lady Bird’s interactions with different characters. We gain insight into the vulnerability of a student coming to terms with himself in the shape of Danny (Lucas Hedges), Lady Bird’s boyfriend, whom she discovers is homosexual. We witness the complications of intimacy in the form of her second boyfriend, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a stereotypical playboy-mystique, with whom she shares her first sexual encounter. We relive the ups and downs of companionship with Julie (Beanie Feldstein), Lady Bird’s best friend.

Lady Bird’s progression in the film hinges on how these interpersonal experiences coalesce as an acknowledgement of her true self. Once she arrives in New York, she recalls the familiarity of home. Waking up in the hospital after a drunken night, Lady Bird glances at her hospital wristband; it reads “Christine McPherson.” She proceeds to a church where she listens to the choir, reminding her of high school. This nostalgia prompts her to leave her parents a voicemail message, in which she uses her given name, Christine, and reminisces about the beauty of Sacramento. Vignettes of her hometown appear on the screen, illustrating her appreciation of its uniqueness. The visual composition of this scene reflects this shift in Lady Bird’s persona. Lady Bird walks the streets of Manhattan from screen left to screen right, reversing earlier scenes of her walking from right to left in Sacramento; she figuratively returns home by walking in the opposite direction. Upon this realization of home and family as integral components of her identity, she has finally become comfortable with herself.

Despite our gender and background differences, Lady Bird’s development of identity resonated with me. The notion of creating an identity out of a combination of new and familiar experiences, while learning to accept these multifaceted aspects of individuality was both intriguing and moving. More impressively, the film enabled me to inhabit Lady Bird’s world and mind. While I can never fully comprehend the issues a young woman, such as Lady Bird, may encounter as she grows up, the fact that I can empathize with her speaks to the resounding impact of this film.

This accomplishment of connecting people with different identities provides hope that we can emulate such empathy on a larger scale, particularly for the causes of distressed individuals. In this context, perhaps this film serves as a bridge for young men, such as myself, to the plight of women in the current social climate. In light of the devastating stories of sexual harassment in Hollywood and in the political arena, films that can elicit empathy and compassion, rather than mere sympathy, could influence people of different identities to unite against the injustice from which others suffer. As Lady Bird’s discovery of self demonstrates, this should not involve the loss of identity in order to find common ground. Rather, we should recognize and encourage distinct identities while building bridges between them through a defining factor of our humanity – empathy.