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Antonello da Messina, Virgin of the Annunciation (detail)
Review Film

Fly Home

Mark Thomas

Lady Bird, 2018. Directed by Greta Gerwig.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is not a good person. She’s a young lady with a long list of sins, most of them minor, some of them major. At best—that is, at her least worst—she’s vain, mean, even manipulative. At her worst worst, she’s a thief, a cheat, and a liar. And worse. She also smokes pot. And cloves. She also doesn’t go to confession for any of these sins. True, she’s not Catholic, but you would think after being a student at St. Francis Xavier for four years, she might have got some of it on her—that is, if she weren’t so above it all.

Indeed, “Lady Bird” is hell-bent, you might say, on escaping her suffocating bourgeois existence in Sacramento so she can breathe deep the literary airs of the cultured Northeast. Hell-bent enough to deep-six her math teacher’s grade book for the sake of lying her way to a stronger transcript. She also jerks her poor unemployed father’s heartstrings to get him to fill out her financial aid applications for pricey East Coast liberal arts schools, and then lets him plunge his family even deeper into debt in order to pay the balance of her tuition.

Part and parcel of “Lady Bird”’s intellectual snobbery is her disgust with being poor. She speaks with contempt about living (literally) on the “wrong side of the tracks,” she won’t be seen getting dropped off by her loser dad in front of her high school, and she lies about living in a fancy neighborhood in order to ingratiate herself to a wealthy classmate named Jenna (Odeya Rush). Jenna is a drastically under-parented brat who’s also an experienced carouser and fornicator and who’s also not shy about telling war stories like the one time she took a phone call from her mom while in the process of losing her virginity. It is to recommend herself to such a person that “Lady Bird” proposes pranking a beloved teacher while at the same time distancing herself from Julie (Beanie Feldstein), her best friend from childhood (who is also, unhappily, from “Lady Bird”’s side of the tracks).

Speaking of fornication, it appears that “Lady Bird” is just as hell-bent on losing her virginity as she is on becoming an Ivy Leaguer (or something like it). She is ready to give herself to her backstage crush Danny (Lucas Hedges), but later turns her attention (or rather, focuses her formerly divided attention) on Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), a mysterious self-styled radical who dissents from cell phones and manufactured cigarettes as well as the entire U.S. economy. Kyle first caught her eye when playing in a band at a coffee shop, and later cements her affection by reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States by himself poolside at a party at Jenna’s house. It is not long before the two of them are having sex. That is to say, before they have sex for the first time. Which is also apparently their last time. Because it all goes horribly wrong.

Because of a peculiar prior circumstance, the ambiguity of which is meticulously crafted (as is the entire film) by Lady Birds writer-director Greta Gerwig, Christine is under the impression that Kyle was also a virgin. When it’s all over, Christine gushes: “We deflowered each other. We have each others’ flowers.” When Christine discovers she has mistaken the event for being more special than it actually was, Kyle reassures her by saying: “You're going to have so much un-special sex in your life.” Apparently "Lady Bird," for all her sophistication, had a certain vision—one might even say a romantic vision—of what was befitting such a moment as the loss of her virginity. You see, as it happens, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is not just sophomoric, self-absorbed, small and sinful. She’s also a girl.

To be specific, Christine is a girl who has a very difficult mother (Marion, played by Laurie Metcalf). Marion is the kind of mother under whom it would be hard for anyone to feel like a person. Marion is a caretaker by profession, and also a caretaker at home, supporting the family financially and keeping household order (which is to say, she rules over the smallest of particulars with an iron hand). She is also, while extremely charming, almost entirely emotionally unavailable, even borderline sociopathic. This is not, as is commonly thought, a term which indicates violent behavior; rather it indicates a marked absence of human feeling. An absence likely due, in Marion’s case, to her own chaotic, traumatic background. Which personal history likely led to Marion becoming the tireless manager of order, human affairs, and yes, even human feelings (e.g., the depression of her patients, the depression of her own husband) that she is today, without the luxury of actually have feelings herself (at least, not without great difficulty). Let alone a sensitivity to the feelings of others, such as those of her only daughter.

So, Christine, as an un-affirmed person (one might say as a universally-opposed person), must do without a hand to hold as she loudly, clumsily finds her way. Of course she still relies on her mother, as any dependent must, but in terms of her journey toward becoming who she is, she has only her strength of will, her wits, and her very limited experience. (It is worth noting that while her mother has talked to her about protected sex, it does not seem that she has advised Christine about matters of the heart.) And so "Lady Bird" is, at times, graceless, ugly, silly, foolish. Her very moniker, “Lady Bird,” a name she calls her “given name” because “it was given to me by me,” is the very quintessence of her hopelessly hapless and even pathetic attempts at self-creation. Pathetic as in inspiring feeling. Feelings like sympathy, affection, even love. If there’s not already a bumper-sticker out there that reads “I HEART LADY BIRD” in that glorious gothic font, I’m going to have to make one myself.

But has Gerwig really given us, in the end, a manifesto of self-determination and self-actualization? One could only say so if one were tone-deaf to the film’s ending, in which there is not only healing brought about by the quiet agency of another, but also salvation, and even a peace that surpasses all understanding. No sooner has "Lady Bird" realized her dream than she nearly falls into disaster—the sort of disaster into which a lost child like herself so typically and even casually falls, once on her own. It is a disaster from which she is awkwardly but completely saved. Then, moments after emerging from the jaws of doom, she finds herself in the presence of God. Her response is gratitude—gratitude for her life and, miraculously, gratitude for her family.

Far from being an ode to autonomy, Lady Bird is nothing less than a testimony to life as a gift. An un-asked for, and even in some respects un-desirable, gift. A gift which is awesome enough to inspire gratitude nonetheless.

Mark Thomas is a screenwriter, filmmaker and film critic living in upstate New York and haunting southern California.

Humanum: Issues in Family, Culture & Science
Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family
620 Michigan Ave. N.E. (McGivney Hall)
Washington, DC 20064