There are a great deal of moments in Lady Bird that made me feel as though I were looking into a mirror, nostalgic for a past that was incredibly close to Lady Bird’s. Those moments weren’t always the funny ones, to be perfectly honest. I distinctly remember squabbles with my parents, feeling as though I were independent enough at seventeen not to need their approval. Then there was my religious high school, a place that felt like limbo, where many mistakes were made. Time has made these memories painful. For in all my haste to blitz forward to adulthood, I had never quite realized that adulthood wasn’t the journey’s end.
Consider that we as human beings spend the majority of our time in a state of transition. Of course there are moments that feel like reaching a destination, such as marriage or parenthood — but even these benchmarks lend themselves to another leg of an eternal journey. We are almost always in a state of flux. Even if there’s a pattern, life has an unkind way of throwing its fair share of curveballs. Truly, it’s exhausting. But by the same token, there is plenty of importance to a life spent in transition. From a Christian’s perspective, it disallows complacency, meaning that every day requires full attention. It’s what we do during the journey that changes who we are. A life spent in transition is a life filled with growth and development. Perhaps it even changes the destination.
Greta Gerwig is a filmmaker who has built her craft on observational tendencies. Her previous effort, Frances Ha, chronicled a type of self-inflicted purgatory many young adults experience after the structures of college and adolescence have faded far away. In that film, many of Frances’ problems weren’t necessarily the result of her lacking a destination — although that certainly didn’t make matters any easier. Instead, Frances attempted to be still while stuck in transition. One of the most memorable moments of the film sees Frances running down the street to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” soaking up the allure of city life while running towards nothing in particular. It’s infectious, but despite the appeal, there’s really no sense of neutrality in time, and Frances Ha explores a person who needs to stop trying to stand still and must begin to move forward. She’s half-formed, by her own accord, and the film expresses this not only in its black and white cinematography, suggesting that we are watching events stuck in time, but in its ending, where Frances’ full name won’t fit on her mailbox slot. Frances has grown — but she’s not quite a fully-formed person yet. The transition continues.
Gerwig’s exploration of a life in perpetual motion continues in her directorial debut. But she goes farther back in time to another moment in life that often feels like a black hole, the end of adolescence. More specifically, Gerwig’s film observes the life of a high school senior, yearning for a life beyond the confines of her adolescence. The events of the film are drawn extensively from Gerwig’s own teenage years, from the music choices she makes down to the film’s setting in Sacramento, California. Unlike Frances Ha, which saw a character trapped in a self-imposed sense of purgatory, Lady Bird sees its teenage heroine (Saoirse Ronan) trying to do almost the exact opposite as she attempts to speed ahead, trying to reach the destination and skip the middle ground altogether. It’s apt — teenagers begin to discover their own sense of autonomy as they mature, but all too often that sense of newfound freedom is overplayed to the point where autonomy is purely selfish. There’s deep pain in maturation, but the way most teenagers attempt to forsake the past in order to sprint headlong for the future only results in exit wounds, and it almost never leads towards faster maturity.
It helps that Lady Bird feels like a genuine teenager. Like Frances, here is someone who remains completely unformed, but in this case, the character is almost unaware of this. For all her abrasiveness and desperation to go against the grain, Lady Bird is stuck — she knows she wants to go to school across the country, but isn’t sure what she’s good at. She’s full of ideas, but not ambition. Instead, Lady Bird is driven by impulse. She can’t even go by Christine, her given name, and instead forces others to call her by a made up name she’s given to herself.
It’s fascinating that both Frances Ha and Lady Bird dwell on the importance of names. It’s clear that Gerwig sees the value in a name — it’s perhaps our most important piece of identity, that which others call us by and that which is given to us as a gesture of creating individuality. What has always intrigued me about names is that they are rarely, if ever, self-given. Usually it is the parents’ job to christen a child with their name, and with that comes some sense of connotation and projection. Names have meaning, and they are often bestowed in the hopes that we will embody the ideas behind them. So how come Lady Bird cannot go by her own name?
Christine is the feminine version of Christian, a direct extension to the religion of Christianity. Not coincidentally, much of Lady Bird is centered around Catholicism, religion, and religious institutes. Lady Bird attends a Catholic school, complete with the standard uniforms and nuns doubling as teachers. But Lady Bird is hardly religious, eating communion wafers with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) like they’re vanilla wafers and vandalizing Sister Joan’s car with a tartly humorous sign that reads, “Just married to Jesus.” Although her name embodies religion, Lady Bird actively seeks to distance herself from that cornerstone of her life. After all, she doesn’t go by Christine.
As mentioned before, names are often given by parents. Central to the conflict of this film is the terse relationship that Lady Bird shares with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf). The two bicker at the drop of a hat. Lady Bird wants to leave Sacramento far behind and find a new nest in New York, something her mother refuses to give credence to. Even though it’s obvious that Marion loves her daughter, and the film shows both the ups and downs of their relationship, Lady Bird uses any opportunity she can to make her mother into a villain using all the typical teenager excuses. Marion plays along with Lady Bird’s desire to go by a self-given name, but there is a lament that forsaking the name given to her is a waste. Is it just another intentional way Lady Bird rebels against the foundations that have created her?
But as the film comes to its conclusion, Lady Bird makes a startling revelation. One of the nuns at her Catholic school, Sister Joan, remarks about the adoration inherent in the startling accuracy of Lady Bird’s essay description of Sacramento. Lady Bird believes she’s just paid attention — written down Sacramento as it is, and that she has no love for the city. Sister Joan tells her, “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?”
They are, in some ways. The act of attention is one of the most basic forms of love. When we pay attention to those around us, we are giving them our time and our energy. Lady Bird goes to New York, finally getting the life she wants, only to almost immediately miss Sacramento, her friends, and most importantly, her parents. These things formed her — and as much as she tried to move past them, they deeply created who she is. And in her moments of trying to run from that, she forgot to pay attention to them. The new distance, the unfamiliarity of that new world, is what brings Lady Bird to the revelation.
In the end, she finds herself at a church after a drunken night gone wrong — her first night on the East Coast, no less. She goes inside, quietly observing a service, finding comfort in both the presence and the function of the building, a familiar pillar from her adolescence. And despite wanting to be grown up, and certainly not knowing how, Lady Bird calls her mom.
Finally, she is no longer Lady Bird. She is now Christine.
But her journey is far from over. Gerwig’s film may end on a positive note, but she peppers the film’s conclusion with a series of highs and lows. It’s perhaps two steps forward, one step back — a signaling of the new challenges ahead for Christine and a reminder of how much further she has to go. Who we become and when we get there are completely subjective things, but the growing pains that accompany them are felt by everyone. Gerwig knows how to capture that best, and for all its peaks and for all its valleys, she understands that it’s those days in the metaphorical desert of maturation that still resonate most strongly with everyone who may or may not have made it to the other side. It goes back to that idea that were are always in a state of motion, caught in a transition from one major moment to the next. We are never fully-formed — but if we move forward, and we pay attention, we’ll get that much closer.
Lady Bird is about a timeless journey, filled with self-discovery and plenty of pitfalls. It was as if Gerwig knew of my own adolescence, all the moments I spent wanting to run from the place and from those who nurtured me the most, how unprepared I was for life even though I’d convinced myself otherwise. Gerwig’s film is a celebration of life in its best and its worst moments, adapting the teenage experience ways both tender and hilarious. There is nothing particularly flashy about Gerwig’s directorial instincts, and the film doesn’t seek to upend the well-worn formula of the coming-of-age saga. But it is honest, both with us and with Lady Bird.