Coming Home: A Review of "Lady Bird"
Coming Home: A Review of Lady Bird
by Frank EnYart
I saw Lady Bird at perhaps the most advantageous time for the film to just tear my heart to pieces. I had moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, seven months before, away from Chicago where I had done my last three years of growing up, and the Midwest, where I had done all of my growing up. It was the weekend of Thanksgiving, and I was fresh off of a two-day trip to Ohio, where I had somehow managed to squeeze in visits with my entire family, my best friend from childhood, and about six other people I had no intention of seeing but saw by accident when my friend and I caught up over drinks at the local bar.
Because of an unpredictable work schedule, I was unsure when I would be able to make it home again, so I wanted to jam as much face time with those I loved as possible. So after Thanksgiving Day and Black Friday in Ohio, I took an early morning Greyhound to see my best friend in Chicago, and to see just how much the city had changed since I had exited (there’s a Mark Twain quote about how Chicago is novel because whenever you come back, it’s different—I don’t know if Twain visited much more infrequently than me or not, but most of the city looked exactly the same as I left it, save for small things that I’m sure I’m just misremembering). After stops at our old coffee spot, and a delightfully long and musty bus ride, we settled down at his house for a while.
My Chicago, the Chicago that I had become accustomed to when I lived there, was the new Chicago—the up-and-coming, young, start-up-riddled, ritzy, almost cruelly New York City-lite and cream-of-the-crop Midwestern collegiate city where it seemed like the entire North Side crawled with suburbanite, middle class white kids moving to the city for a Sister Carrie reinvention. The irony is not lost on me that every single bit of that description is why I lived there. But the Chicago that my friend and his family inhabited was out of a different time. They lived in a three bedroom apartment on the Southwest side of the city, and for them, Chicago was their home city—both of his parents grew up not far from where they lived now; they attended public schools in the city, and spoke with the thick, elongated accent that accompanies veterans of the Northern Midwest. Their Chicago, it seemed, was the Old Chicago—the City of the Big Shoulders.
All of this to say that a big block of nostalgic ice had settled in my stomach—the bittersweet kind that brings back memories, good and bad, and pushes cold water through your veins. Each intersection had its own index of photos, memories, and people—without a single concern for what those ruminations drum up. Perhaps that’s just the effect returning to Chicago has on me now: a complicated mix of pride and regret, disappointment and astonishment.
Lady Bird, at its core, is a story about change. Change between a young woman and her family, yes, but also about myriad other changes—loss of innocence, the haphazard dynamic of high school, a change in religious beliefs. The main character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, is at one of the most significant crossroads of a young adults life—the threshold from high school to college; the time when, at least theoretically, one decides who they will be for at least the next four years, and the time when one begins to step out of the shadow of inherited circumstance—that is, what fate has decided ought to be their gender, family, geography, and class, and all other specs by which one can be easily categorized. McPherson attends an all-girls catholic school in Sacramento, is a part of a family who struggles financially, and she has just enough quirk to put her just below the space where one can be at ease with themselves among their peers. It’s a classic high school melodrama—odd high school girl falls in and out of love, loses her virginity to an over-literary and disconnected douche, lies about parts of her identity in order to fit in, and loses her best friend in the process, only to reunite at the prom over heartbreak. To say the power of the film is in the story would be to greatly exaggerate the films originality.
However, and it’s a significant however, what this film does much more precisely than the neon-pink, bubble gum John Hughes forefathers of the same genre is allow the characters to breathe, and by doing so, allows the audience to sit in on quiet and heartbreaking moments. For example, one of the most heart-wrenching scenes occurs between Lady Bird and her mother while shopping for prom dresses. The frame of the scene is the common trope of school dances, but where the dramatic meat lies is in the moments between Lady Bird and her mother—interactions and dialogue that slowly, with colorful strokes, create an emotional landscape that is complicated and familiar to anyone intimate with dysfunction (which is to say, almost everyone). Another scene shows Danny, a love interest that Lady Bird had earlier discovered making out with another boy in the bathroom, breaking down on Lady Bird’s shoulder inconsolably, telling her that coming out would be impossible to his conservative family: an unexpected ending to a climactic scene from earlier in the film.
Lady Bird is rife with these small moments, and perhaps these understated but dense moments are what leave viewers feeling so acquainted with the McPherson’s struggles; how else could one feel watching Lady Bird and her father stress out about financial aid documents for college?
I left the theatre that night feeling incredibly connected to the world again—understood, part of a reality that is ubiquitous to everyone. That’s the power of a film like Lady Bird; illuminating the ugly struggles of a high schooler in such an unabashed fashion runs a thread through everyone’s experience. As my best friend and I walked out, he turned to me and said that he—a city-dweller his entire life—wished he had grown up in a smaller town, where things seemed a little less complicated, and everyone knew just a little too much of everyone’s business. It was strange to me to hear this, because nothing about Lady Bird shied away from the pitfalls of that sort of existence. I thought about how in my hometown rumors spread like wildfire, regardless of how true they were, or how the boredom and familiarity which pervades the geography leads to a certain obsession with meddling in other’s lives.
But I also remembered how in a moment's notice I could be at a friends house playing football in their backyard, or how it feels to look fondly over the social internet at the things people are accomplishing—people that learned to read with me. Lady Bird accomplishes something incredibly unique, in that it ties up in a little over an hour a lifetime of complicated feelings for someone like me who has lived the sort of low-fi, suburban existence Lady Bird is longing to escape, while caressing those complications with just enough joy that those unfamiliar with small-town living long to have that experience if only for a bit. As we sat on that same musty bus back to my friend’s apartment, I thought about how small-town living is mostly what you make of it. The friends I’ve had since childhood were a stroke of luck for certain, and that many of my Chicago memories are laced with the same teeming feeling—after all, maturing is just a series of spaces to fill, and once those are filled to satisfaction, whether it’s by college, learning, love, or whatever one is searching for in the lights of a city or the mountains of New Mexico, the next horizon seems just a tiny bit closer. And after Lady Bird, a Thanksgiving at home, a weekend spent with the most important people in my life, I realized that often what determines the spatial relation between a person and their environment is just how full that place is with memory and emotion; it casts a hazy glow over Santa Fe, Ohio, Chicago, Sacramento. The more space in one’s head that is filled with love and heartache, the less space there is to feel lonely; the less space there is to see what makes someplace feels so different and unfamiliar.