There’s a line in a song I think about a lot. I think it might be true.
You can change your clothes/ Change your hairstyle, your friends, cities, continents/ But sooner or later your own self will always catch up/ Always it waits in the wings
—’Be Safe’ by The Cribs, with lyrics by Lee Ranaldo
When you’re 18 you’re electric with potential energy. What feels like a lifetime of learning, and growing, and waiting has reached a crescendo and hangs, a crashing wave, ready to carry you into the rest of your life. When you’re 18 you could be anybody: Christine McPherson, or maybe just Lady Bird.
Changing her name makes sense for Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan in the titular role) as a mark of her new, adult identity. It shows her penchant for the dramatic and also her wish for a clean break from the past. She’s not just announcing her new identity, she’s trying to cast aside her old one, and everything that came with it.
But what does our identity actually consist of at that age? So much of what defines us is decided by the chance of where we were born and who we were born to. We owe everything to our parents, whether we like it or not. There’s little doubt that Lady Bird feels the latter. By rejecting her birth name she’s also rejecting the years of love and support her parents dedicated to her.
There are some things it’s understandable for her to want to leave behind: her family’s working class poverty, Sacramento’s mundane suburbia, and plenty more that gets destroyed as collateral damage – her best friend’s companionship, her mother’s tireless sacrifices, and her father’s self-esteem. Lady Bird yearns for excitement, in whatever form it takes, no matter the human cost. That much is clear when she listens to the Great Depression-era novel The Grapes of Wrath, and her response is that she too wishes she could “live through something.” Considering the film is set in 2002, she should be careful what she wishes for.
Writer-director Greta Gerwig isn’t afraid to show us these grubby corners of Lady Bird’s personality. She throws her parents’ love back in their faces, because as far she’s concerned, in order to live the life she wants and be popular in school, she can’t acknowledge their paycheck-to-paycheck existence or average home. No matter that her unemployed father (Tracy Letts) scrimps behind his wife’s back to pay for Lady Bird’s college tuition, or that her mother (Laurie Metcalf) is generous enough to let her son’s girlfriend live with them. We can see how brilliant and loving her parents are, and how callous Lady Bird is, and we wince because we were like that sometimes when we were young.
Part of Lady Bird’s brilliance is the point-of-view Gerwig adopts to tell this story. It plays in the present, embracing all of Lady Bird’s juvenile hopes and fears, but with the perspective and hindsight of adulthood. We can see mistakes coming a mile off, particularly those called Kyle (Timothée Chalamet). There’s not meant to be any surprise in a man who is “trying to live by bartering alone” turning out to be a dickhead, because he’s there to remind us of all the teenage mistakes we made when we were trying to be cool.
Lady Bird believes this moment in her life is about escaping her past, coming of age and forging a new identity. What she learns is that growing older is really the opposite. It’s when you let the bullshit performance of being a teenager fall away to reveal who you really are.
Most of all, making that step into adulthood means taking responsibility for your own life rather than relying on your parents. How to redefine that relationship is the toughest thing Lady Bird learns. If she no longer wants to be a child, then her mother and father have to be viewed as adults, not parents, along with everything that entails. It’s hard to imagine a quieter, fiercer example of that than Marion’s statement that her husband has been “struggling with depression for years”, as she talks in the bathroom with Lady Bird. You can feel Lady Bird’s entire perspective shifting as the scale of her own problems is dwarfed.
Lady Bird’s most celebrated moment concludes the film and Christine’s journey of discovering her identity. She delivers a speech to her parents’ voicemail, but it’s the images that do the talking.
This simple act hits Christine so hard because it’s a symbol of her transition from a child to an adult. She’s not a passenger, bound to the path her parents want to take, but the driver, fully in control of where she goes and how she gets there. She’s viewing those streets and her life with total responsibility for the first time. Now that she appreciates how much her parents did for her, the weight of that responsibility and how much she still needs to grow is frightening.
Every day we’re told that people can never really change. “Once a cheater, always a cheater”, as the saying goes. We wait full of hope watching our political leaders stumble through chaos after chaos, thinking that maybe this is the day they’ll get their shit together. Every New Year we fool ourselves that we’ll exercise more, smoke less, quit our jobs, follow our dreams, and six weeks later we’re right back where we started.
It’s hard to imagine anything worse than being stuck as your 18-year-old self forever. But Christine won’t face that fate. Because the person we see across these short, vast 90 minutes isn’t her – it’s her attempt to escape herself. To be cooler, prettier, cleverer and richer than she really is. Her doomed attempt to become Lady Bird.
We can never escape the essential facts of who we are – our family, our hometowns, the burdens or privileges of our gender, race or class – and Lady Bird argues that we shouldn’t try. These things form the foundation of our identity, for better or worse. But the way Christine learns to appreciate her parents and everything they’ve done for her gives us hope that people can change, and for the better.
As we sit in our childhood bedrooms, surrounded by memories of the past, it’s easy to remember the people we used to be. As we squabble with our parents over turkey and board games, it’s even easier to see how we became the people we are now.
N.B. As our site is UK based, we work off the selection of films released in cinemas in the UK in 2018.
So to recap, here’s our Top 20 to 4…
4th – LADY BIRD
Stay tuned each and every day for the remainder of the year to read more on our Top 10 films of 2018!