Oscar Movie Roundup! Lady Bird
Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein in Lady Bird, A24
In the lead up to the Oscars, we will be posting reviews for some of the nominated movies. Our first review is for Lady Bird, which garnered five nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Supporting Actress (Laurie Metcalf), and Best Director and Best Original Screenplay (Greta Gerwig).
I want to start this review my stating something – I really wanted to love this movie. I feel like I am predisposed to like movies about teenaged girls who are weird and have a complicated relationship with their mothers. I was that kid. Sometimes I think I still am that kid, but let me tell you, acting quirky and whimsical is less cute when you’re almost thirty than it is when you’re almost eighteen. Needless to say, I tried really hard to love this movie as much as Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s currently rated 98% fresh.
Christine “Just call me Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), is your average run-of-the-mill Grade 12 Catholic school student. She lives with her older adopted brother, his girlfriend, her mother (Jackie from Roseanne aka Laurie Metcalf), and her father. Lady Bird is flanked by her best friend and emotional punching bag, Julianne “Just call me Julie because I’m trying to be as quirky as my BFF” Steffans (Beanie Feldstein, aka Jonah Hill’s little sister, aka the true star of this film). Together they navigate crushes, boyfriends, university applications, and the longing and belonging to people and places.
Set in 2002, the costuming, soundtrack, and colour palette invokes a feeling of what I wish 2002 was for me, instead of the Avril Lavigne fever dream I survived. This movie is an ode to my generation’s teenaged ennui or something like it. It seems to have worked — this film spoke to audiences so strongly that it broke Rotten Tomatoes’ records, with the highest fresh rating since Toy Story. I think what Lady Bird succeeded in doing was reflect those transitional feelings of being a teenager-bordering-on-adult so well that it is hard not to feel a nostalgic pull at the heart while watching it. The narrative is focused on relationships, and the idea that love is attention. This is one of the things that I liked about Lady Bird. At its core, this movie centres the relationships of women and girls. It’s Lady Bird’s relationship with her mom that gets centre stage, breaking down the age-old cliché of quirky girl with daddy issues. It centres Lady Bird’s friendship with Julie and her friendship with high school cool-mean girl Jenna (Odeya Rush).
If I were to say that accomplishing the basic task of centering woman’s stories was enough, however, I would be lying. Do we really need another coming of age movie about a whimsical skinny white girl who moves to New York to find herself? I understand the appeal of this narrative, I wanted to live this narrative. In high school I exclusively read Russian literature I didn’t understand, watched black and white films I hated, and listened to an overly curated array of music that was mostly OK but mostly boring because I wanted to be that quirky whimsical skinny white girl that boys find alluring and weird. I wanted to pack my bags when I turned 18 and move to New York and become a writer, living in my studio apartment in whatever part of New York Carrie Bradshaw lived in, with my cat named Marmalade and a boyfriend named Winston. In my story, there are a few problems with this dream. Mainly, I’m not skinny, I’m not white (but I am white coded), I have never had the funds to move across the country, and I’m not a 2017 version of Natalie Portman’s character from Garden State. You know Lady Bird would have a hamster funeral. Am I aging myself by comparing this movie to Garden State?
Being able to be a whimsical teenaged narcissist like Lady Bird is a huge privilege. This film is exceedingly white. The only characters of colour that stuck out to me were Lady Bird’s brother and his girlfriend. I’m still bothered that the main storyline for Lady Bird’s brother’s girlfriend, Shelly (Marielle Scott), was wanting Lady Bird to like her. This sparked my mantra throughout the movie: “Why isn’t this movie about Shelly?” I felt this about Shelly’s character, I felt this about Julie, Jenna, literally anyone but Lady Bird. I understand, we are not necessarily supposed to like Lady Bird. She’s complicated, an unreliable narrator, self-centered, and hard to love. I think Lady Bird’s character is a huge success for the film, she doesn’t have to be likeable. She’s very real, but I don’t think her story should be at the centre. I want to hear more from Julie, more from Shelly, even more from Lady Bird’s brother, Miguel.
Speaking of Julie, we need to talk about bodies in this film. I want to preface this by saying that a character’s body does not need to be their main narrative. A fat character’s only storyline doesn’t have to be that they’re fat. Think Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect: this is an example of a character whose main plot points only come from the fact that Rebel Wilson has a bigger body than her co-stars. Julie’s character is buried in Lady Bird’s narrative and falls into a classic movie trope we have seen time and time again: the fat character is the side kick to the skinny character that gets to live a full life. Julie’s story is centered on the pain that Lady Bird causes her. And I get it, because being a fat girl you’re given three modes of existence: Ursula “I’m actually a really cool character that tried to teach Ariel a lesson but because I told her she shouldn’t care about men I’m just labelled an unloveable sea hag” the sea witch from The Little Mermaid, Sookie “The Sidekick” St. James from Gilmore Girls, or Rebel “Just call me Fat Amy” Wilson from Pitch Perfect. These are your designated train stations, fat girl, so pick your stop carefully. Julie is a Sookie St. James, the likeable sidekick to a thin white woman who gets to have a full narrative. Beanie Feldstein’s performance as Julie is phenomenal, and I think that’s why I’m angry that her story didn’t give us more. Maybe filmmakers think the world isn’t ready for a fat woman to take the main stage as something more than a movie trope. Maybe they think we need Lady Birds to make us palatable, but personally, I’m sick of waiting for the Lorelai Gilmores to run their stories out so the Julies and the Sookies can get a full character development.
The beauty in marginalized narratives is when they are awarded all the personality of Lady Bird without being centered on what marginalizes them. What places us in the margins is a part of our life, a natural part of our narrative, not a standalone story. We don’t need to focus on it explicitly because what places us there will always guide how the story is told. Give me a movie about a fat girl that is quirky and selfish. Give me a one about an Indigenous girl and all the terrible and funny people she dates, her relationship with her mom, how she wants to move and become an actor. Give me these storylines for those of us who never seen ourselves on screen. So often, marginalized peoples’ storylines only ever revolve around our traumas – and our traumas are important stories to tell. But not every movie needs to rip us open, we deserve movies like Lady Bird, where we get to see ourselves as the quirky lead.
I think this is what bothered me most about Lady Bird – I didn’t see myself in her story. Or more accurately, I did see a version of myself that I wanted so badly to exist as a teen, but never had the opportunity to be. This doesn’t mean Lady Bird is a bad movie. It is an enjoyable film that has taken more leaps in terms of showing complicated relationships between women than I have seen, maybe ever. But, I want more. I want teenaged girls that are more than whimsical, with more complicated storylines than fighting with their mom and moving to New York. I want fat girls, brown girls, trans girls, queer girls, disabled girls: girls from the margins, to be on screen. I want to hear them be selfish, I want to see them have funny dating stories, I want to see them fight with their moms, I want to see me reflected back to me. I am so done with seeing narratives about thin white people. Give me more teen coming of age films that show me the stories that we shout from the margins. Give me movies about the Julies and Shellys, and let the Lady Birds be the supportive best friends.