I am a quirky and angsty teenage white girl. OK… I mean… I’m not. I’m a middle aged black man. But sometimes I’m not sure. I like millennial pop music. I like YA fiction. I love me some CW TV shows (and yes, I maybe have a teeny bit of a schoolgirl crush on Stephen Amell, but have you seen him do the salmon ladder? Who doesn’t? I also can’t wait for the 100 to come back. And are you caught up on Riverdale? Because OMG!). I mean, I’m pretty sure I’m totally a dude… but my favorite movie of last year was probably The Edge of Seventeen, the story of a quirky and angsty teenaged white girl dealing with first world problems as she sat on the cusp of adulthood. I gave it 4.25 out of 5 stars. In retrospect, I maybe even owed it another quarter star. I just found it so relatable and perfect. It spoke to me. And you know, maybe I’d think it was an outlier. Maybe that was just a one-time thing. Except that this year my favorite movie (and it’s been a good year for movies, especially low to middle budget ones) is probably Lady Bird, the story of a quirky and angsty teenage white girl dealing with first world problems. Why do I relate to these movies so much?
Seriously… I’m starting to question things about myself.
Maybe it’s just that they’re good. Lady Bird certainly was. In fact, it was nigh perfect.
Perhaps we are entering something of a renaissance for the female bildungsroman film. That’s what these are. When I reviewed The Edge of Seventeen I noted that I couldn’t really write the review without spoilers, but that was ok because the entire plot of the film was largely given away by the trailer. It was the story of a quirky and angsty teenage girl who suddenly discovered that her quirky and angsty best friend was fucking her older brother. She then deals with it with a succession of completely predictable quirky angst. #WhiteGirlProblems, amirite? Up top! Hello? Anyone? Huh… I really was expecting a high five there. Which maybe would have worked better if there was anyone else in the room as I am typing the review. Oh well.
That said, as predictable as it might have been, that movie worked on every level because it really wasn’t about the plot. It was about the character development as you got there. It was enjoyable on almost every level. It was good because it wasn’t about where the story was going, it was about watching the story get there.
Lady Bird goes a different way. I can’t really spoil the plot because… well, it’s kind of hard to say what the plot is. Seriously. Just watch the trailer:
There’s not really a plot… per se. Lady Bird is a quirky and angsty teenage girl who hates her overbearing mother. That’s it. Seriously. That’s the gist of the story. And it’s not really even a story. It’s more of a character trait. And it’s amazing.
It’s paced very much like a novel. As I said, it’s a bildungsroman. It’s not so much about the specific things she does, so much as the experience of growing up. She has to learn to deal with changing relationships, jobs, applying to college, sex, family, politics, religion… all while trying to actually learn what it is to be an adult. It is about the weird point in life where she is trying to navigate who she is as a person.. figure out who that person is. And it all feels very real and organic.
The hook with Edge of Seventeen is that even though the main character, Nadine, seems like a lovely and bright girl, she’s really kind of an asshole inside. She’s mean and complex. Here, Lady Bird, played by Saoirse Ronan, is almost the exact opposite. She’s unremarkable. She’s an outcast. She’s a loser. She makes the worst first impressions. She’s not initially likable at all. At the end of the day, all of the issues that she encounters are mundane. They are completely ordinary things that we all go through. But the struggles seem real. The key to the film is learning that she has a wealth of emotional experiences going on inside. She’s a very three-dimensional and tangible. The problems may be insignificant in the grand scheme of the world (and Lady Bird knows this) but Ronan plays each scene like every complication is world ending, because to Lady Bird, they are. These are the biggest problems in her very small world. You certainly won’t aspire to be her… it’s more that you will fear that you are her. And that makes you root for her to be ok. For every flaw she has, she is the very definition of strong female character. Her complexities make her real. There’s a reason Ronan has two Oscar nominations and it feels like she is eyeing her third.
The supporting cast is equally strong. Laurie Metcalf is especially strong here as Lady Bird’s mother, Marion, and if Metcalf doesn’t get a Supporting Actress nomination for this film then something is very wrong with the world. Like Lady Bird, she is very unlikable in many ways. In fact, the trailer basically tells you that it’s her defining characteristic. But the success of the movie hinges on the character. You need to believe that although Lady Bird and Marion don’t really like each other that much, they do love each other. And the climax of the film depends on Metcalf getting that across throughout the earlier stages without having it feel forced. She nails it.
And from that comes humor. I’m oddly hesitant to call this a comedy. At least not in the same way that Edge of Seventeen was. It’s not farcical. Nothing contrived happens. The humor comes from its realism. It is funny simply because at the end of the day life is funny. You want to laugh simply to get through the awkwardness… to cut through the angst. The very familiar quirky angst that Nadine had in the other movie. The source is different. In fact, I’m fairly certain that Nadine and Lady Bird would probably hate each other (and now I kind of want to see that movie). But they have the same insecurities deep down. Not that they would have seen it in each other. And both films sort of show us that we all do. Quirky and angsty teenage white girls like Nadine, Lady Bird, and myself… and YOU. Because you are a quirky and angsty teenaged white girl too. You just don’t realize it. You’re too busy wrapped up in the drama of your own life to notice where you fit in with the rest of the world and to notice that everyone else is going through their own quirks and angsts at the same time.
Writer and director Greta Gerwig surrounds Lady Bird with supporting characters that are just as complex as she is. Rather than simply being window dressing to flesh out and facilitate Lady Bird’s life, they all seem to have their own stories going on. We are not privy to all of the details, but their lives seem to progress while they are off screen. When we do get a glimpse into their lives we see that they have unique problems of their own, some big and some small. Since it is not their story, we often don’t see the resolution. Just like real life. Even the most minor characters are delightful, especially Father Walther played by Bob Stephenson. He probably has about 60 seconds of screen time but he may be the highlight of the film.
However, perhaps the oddest thing about the movie is its time setting. It takes place over Lady Bird’s senior year from fall 2002 to spring 2003. There’s not really a good reason for this. Fifteen years ago doesn’t seem quite long enough to be “nostalgic.” After all, we’re currently in the midst of 1980s nostalgia right now. 2000s nostalgia shouldn’t be for another fifteen years. But perhaps that’s what Gerwig is showing us here. She’s ahead of the curve. One day all movies will be like Lady Bird.
That day can’t come soon enough.
★★★★¾(4.75 out of 5 stars)