Sunday, September 17, 2017

"Lady Bird" and the value of a pumpkin-spice soundtrack UPDATED

The Guardian review of Greta Gerwig's ah-mazing new movie, "Lady Bird," opens with an interlude about men. The reviewer - also a man, which is no crime - first congratulates Noah Baumbach on the "smart career move" of working with Gerwig (who is also his-as-in-Baumbach's partner), both because Gerwig is talented and because she offers insights into how it goes for the ladies: "He realized that without her voice, he would be yet another guy in his 40s trying to speak for women half his age. (Woody Allen would do wise to follow a similar path.)"

That intro is a disclaimer that suggests the reviewer will not get the movie itself, or not entirely. (A man certainly could get this movie, and this reviewer does, in places. Girls have, since forever, been identifying with protagonists of male coming-of-age movies.) Which is - and I say this as a tremendous compliment - a girl movie. It's a movie about being a girl. I related to it in the visceral way I did, not because I have any familiarity with what it's like to have the precise adolescence depicted - I was never a small-town girl dreaming of the big city, nor a Catholic school student, etc. - but because oh my goodness. Having just mentioned two facts about the movie clear from the first minute or so, it's spoiler time...




The boy stuff. It is somehow, in the course of one movie, all there. The entirety of female heterosexuality as experienced by teenage girls who are neither the most popular nor outcasts. There are a few scenes and plot choices that jump out:

-The school dance. (UPDATE: not the dance! The post-play reception!) Lady Bird, the Gerwig stand-in, played - brilliantly - by Saoirse Ronan, is there with her too-good-to-be-true boyfriend, Danny, from the Catholic boys' high school. Such a wonderful guy - great at musical theater; so respectful of her that he refuses to do more than kiss her, even when she asks; so at ease making conversation with her... you do not need to have lived this, from either side, to know where this is going, but it helps, and judging by reactions during and after the movie, this was a theater full of women (and some men) who'd been there, plus some girls who are probably there just about now. So that where she's at, at the time of the dance. A nun - this is Catholic school - is stepping in to make sure Lady Bird and her date don't slow-dance too close together. (SECOND UPDATE: I have clearly mixed up the dance and reception scenes - dance for sure came first) It's all very romantic, in an innocent way.

Annnyway. At the very same time, Julie, Lady Bird's best friend, has a massive crush on the math teacher at their all-girls Catholic school. The teacher's a chaperone at the dance, where he introduces Julie to... his beautiful, pregnant wife. As unrealizable as Julie's crush was to begin with, it becomes, for her, in that moment, this unmistakable impossibility. She's devastated.

Julie and Lady Bird need to pee. The line for the girls' bathroom is too long, so they head for the boys', where, surprise, Mr. Perfect is making out, in a stall, with another boy. Within moments, Lady Bird's love reveals itself to be just as unrequited as Julie's.

-Kyle. While still with Danny, Lady Bird notices a boy in a band. But not just any boy in a band. There's floppy hair, and - and here's the originality - a variety of That Guy affectations of the sort that can seem intriguing and then not, in quick succession, when you are That Age yourself. He's always reading, in this sort of conspicuous way. He rolls his own cigarettes. He's a rich kid who doesn't believe in participating in the economy. His type manifests itself, it first seems, most perfectly in that first (and, it seems, only) encounter, but then... wow.

There's this scene where Lady Bird is in the car with Kyle and a popular couple he's friends with, driving to prom. (She makes a mid-movie decision to ditch Julie in favor of a pretty, disobedient girl, a sort of vapid Rayanne.) The cool kids all decide to ditch prom for some house party; Lady Bird, trying to go along, reluctantly agrees. Dave Matthews Band comes on the radio. Kyle says how much he hates the song. Lady Bird admits she likes it, which gives her the courage to admit another basic desire: she would not like to ditch prom, after all. The scene where she does go to prom, but with Julie, is kind of wonderful. (Why only "kind of"? Getting to that...)

-While boy stuff occupies a lot of her time and emotions, there's never any question, throughout the movie, that Lady Bird would choose a boy - any boy - over her big-picture goal of moving to New York for college. She's ambitious, without having any clear ambition. Typically, I think, a coming-of-age story about a young woman would at least pause on the question of boys from back home. Whereas one about a young man would more typically take for granted that there'd be crushes, sexual experimentation, whatever, without this in any way impeding adventures to come.

Along the same lines, if much more subtle: Julie's crush on the math teacher never once leads to her claiming, coyly, to be bad at math. Liking a good-looking man and being good at math (and proud of that fact) are, for Julie, entirely consistent. This is not - to put it mildly - a teen-entertainment convention.

OK, so now, back to that "kind of": A Guardian commenter - who gives no indication of having seen the movie or even the trailer - writes: "Cool, we need more movies about privileged white teenage girls feeling put upon." In the one sense, because of course every work gets that response, especially every work by a young woman. In another... kind of?

Much is made, in the movie, of Lady Bird's family's financial situation. While it feels dire to Lady Bird (it's a huge stretch for her to go to college out-of-state, at a private school, but not, like, Elena Greco-gets-to-go-to-high-school-level miraculous), and while her parents are very stressed about money, the family's "poverty" does ultimately amount to, they're middle-class (if more precariously so, later in the movie) but their neighbors are well-off. Her parents are married to each other and - until her dad is laid off - both work middle-class jobs, at the very least. They own a home, just not a mansion.

Is Lady Bird privileged? Not in the sense of, one of the rich kids. A privileged teenager isn't shopping with her mother at thrift stores out of necessity, or working two jobs, one as a barista, one at a supermarket. Or maybe a privileged teenager is doing both of those things? Depends what's meant and all that, and some socioeconomic details maybe didn't quite add up. (I have a whole theory about this: that it's exceedingly difficult to convey 'middle-class but feels poor compared to rich neighbors' in a sympathetic way, so there's this portrayal of the family as poor, which is contradicted by basic facts about them, suggesting... maybe not?)

In this age of awareness, it's hard not to notice that we're getting the story of a conventionally attractive, very slim, very heterosexual white girl, and not that of her overweight best friend; her closeted gay (ex-) boyfriend; her Latino (adopted) brother; or any of her black classmates. So other people, facing greater obstacles, are around, but in the background. They're helping to tell her story.

This becomes especially noticeable a couple times, such as when Lady Bird makes wistful reference to wishing she looked like the girls in the magazines. Which... she does! Not just as in, the actress does, but the character is clearly meant to be physically attractive. Are we, then, in the realm of a Taylor Swiftian pseudo-underdog persona? And, I mean, maybe we are. But maybe that is, in a sense, the point. But also, maybe narratives of female sexuality - even female heterosexuality as experienced by thin, pretty, imperceptibly quirky blond white girls - are still so rarely told from a female perspective that there's something to be said for celebrating even these. But also, but also, maybe this isn't about celebrating the movie for its politics. It was, quite simply, well done.

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