One of the most peculiar qualities of Greta Gerwig’s much-acclaimed film Lady Bird is that—especially for a coming-of-age story, or domestic drama, or whatever you call it—it contains relatively little suspense. Certainly the stories that unfold over the course of the movie are familiarly dramatic. The film follows its high school protagonist, Lady Bird (née Christine, played by Saoirse Ronan), as she navigates the complexities of home, school, friendship, and love. There are frequent flare-ups between high-strung daughter and strong-willed mother; there’s a depressive father; there’s an unexpected breakup following the discovery of a boyfriend in a bathroom with another boy. There’s a good deal of mean-girl maneuvering, and a more or less disastrous loss of virginity. Several sub-plots add melodramas of their own: a vaguely predatory math teacher, a troubled theater teacher with a dark past. In short, tempers, voices, and interpersonal stakes are high.
And yet Lady Bird is rarely tense. Instead, at points the film is snappy—think low-key screwball—and at points meticulously slow. Its slower moments have largely to do with space and place. The film is self-consciously an homage to Sacramento, the city in which Gerwig grew up and from which Lady Bird seeks to escape. The California sun gleams, the road winds, the suburban houses stand, well appointed and green-lawned. The brief portion set in New York contains a classic, gorgeous, West Village stroll. But although Richard Brody wants more like this (“the movie is nearly devoid of vistas,” he writes), its quicker, conversational scenes are equally satisfying. Rather than build suspense, encounters between characters take place at a rhythm that almost makes them into vignettes: they happen, and the film moves on. Or, again obviating the question of suspense, these encounters escalate into slapstick. Take the opening scene. Lady Bird and her mother are driving home from their all-American pre-college college tour. They seem happy and tired, even punchy. They’re sobbing as they finish the audio book of Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. They begin to bicker; things escalate; Lady Bird opens the side door and propels herself out of the moving vehicle. Cut to the opening credits, and Lady Bird’s new pink cast. (Something about this combination reminds me of Jacques Tati: like Tati, although in a much different key, Gerwig manages to pull off the slapstick gag while dwelling elegiacally in a place—and time.)
I suspect it is this lack of suspense that leads most viewers and critics to find the movie “quirky,” “loveable,” or “sweet.” It is sweet, and funny. But what if Lady Bird’s main quality isn’t its rose-colored glasses, or its gentle portrayal of friendships, relationships, and family, or its soft, wry nostalgia for awkward adolescence? What if it isn’t exactly a coming-of-age story or domestic drama at all? In addition to being about a particular girl in a particular place, Lady Bird is about a particular moment in historical time. The film takes place from the fall of 2002 to the spring of 2003. I think this is important, and not only because I, too, graduated from high school in the spring of that year.
In 2002-2003, chokers, Dave Matthews Band, and a certain unmistakable ribbed horizontal-stripe mock turtleneck were in. The Internet was around, sort of. While there are a few explicitly political allusions tucked away throughout the movie—a Reagan poster hangs somewhere, and references to 9/11 proliferate—I don’t think anyone mentions Bush by name. The scene that perhaps most firmly roots Lady Bird in historical time, though, is a tiny unremarkable one, somewhere in the middle of the film. Lady Bird is lying on her stomach, on the carpeted floor of her living room. The news is on, and on the news is footage of the US invasion of Iraq. We see the television only briefly, before Lady Bird is interrupted by a phone call. Several scenes after this one contain television screens, or the voices they emit, describing the US invasion, showing those night-vision bombings. With the exception of Lady Bird’s insufferable boyfriend, who barely ever raises his eyes from Howard Zinn, no character in the film comments on the war. But these scenes—especially the first interrupted clip—are startling, the intrusion of bigger-picture reality. After the movie, I remembered the color of that living room carpet.
According to David Harvey, in the book of his essays from 2003 to 2005 gathered under the title The New Imperialism, the days following and after the US invasion of Iraq were “perhaps the first occasion on which global public opinion found some sort of collective voice.” For Harvey, this was also the time at which a form of American imperialism was coming into focus as such, to itself, although it was certainly not its beginning. Both this American self-awareness and this global collective voice of resistance seem far from the film; a general silence surrounds the Iraq War and most other political and economic issues that are not “terrorism.” And yet I think questions of global politics—and what now seems a very American form of violence enacted simultaneously at home and abroad—are at its heart, woven into its unfolding dramas. Above all, Lady Bird’s understated drama lets a different drama show through. Nothing seems seriously wrong with the world except the things that are seriously wrong. It’s in fact not clear whether or not these things can be ignored—although they mostly are—or for how long. Like Lady Bird herself, poised at the moment of transition into uncertainty, this moment seems like a moment of being “before”—before what?
Probably nothing good. Lady Bird conveys a strong sense of economic distress; Lady Bird’s parents are manifestly not doing so well. Laid off from a tech job, her father can’t compete with a younger generation. In one of only a few heavy-handed moments in the movie, this is made clear when he runs into his son at a job interview. The film suggests that Lady Bird’s parents refinance their house to help pay for her college tuition, which probably means that further financial difficulties are in store for them. Widening the scope of our forward looking, there’s no neat way to sum up the relationship between 2003’s Iraq War and today’s global catastrophe scene—except to reaffirm that nothing has ended. In any case, all this is to say that Lady Bird is emphatically not, as one reviewer put it, a “modest cinematic antidote to Trump culture.” It doesn’t show us a moment when things were better. If anything, it’s a moment at which some of us first noticed that things were wrong. For me, the feeling of powerlessness and civic failure that characterized the 2016 election and its aftermath weren’t new or unexpected, in part because I remembered where I had been in March of 2003, watching the news in a high school cafeteria, having some kind of realization about “democracy,” which didn’t seem to be working. I hadn’t wanted this.
At the very end of the film is a shot of Lady Bird, looking off to one side at something we can’t see. Something about the composition of this shot makes me think that she is looking towards the future. Her expression is unreadable. This shot seems to me to be an invitation to make the link I am making—to stretch the scale and duration of its dramas and to find, in the background voices and subtle details of the film, the threads that lead us today, when nothing has been resolved, and much has been exacerbated. What’s unique about Lady Bird is that its nostalgia isn’t quite nostalgia. With a strange gentleness, the film builds itself around the feeling of recognizing the scary present in a past you can still manage to love.