It’s been a while since The Breakfast Club redefined coming of age films. It certainly wasn’t the only film of its kind in the eighties, but it was one of the most incisive and daring. It didn’t hold back and truly worked its way into the minds of its characters. Cruel, uncaring parents and teachers loomed heavily over the main characters, who tried desperately to piece together who they were.
Thematically, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird comes closest to this; it’s about a high school girl who’s trying to balance who she is with who her mother wishes she would be. But in execution, it bears more resemblance to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, largely focusing on the ways in which that girl rebels and has fun, instead of the heart-wrenching confessions of the ilk of The Breakfast Club.
Neither comparison really does Lady Bird justice, though; the film stands on its own, and it’s easily one of the most brilliant and beautiful films about adolescence in a long time. But I invite that comparison because it highlights a maturity in Gerwig’s handling of her subject. Though it takes very careful looks at the titular Lady Bird’s struggles with friends, boyfriends, and rebelling against her Catholic upbringing, the real focus is on the relationship between her and her mother. This is where the film excels. Saoirse Ronan’s Lady Bird, and her mother (played by Laurie Metcalf) have great chemistry, and the dynamic between them is just as shifting and volatile as it can be in reality.
The jerkwad parents of The Breakfast Club are never anything more than jerkwads, written as authority figures for these young teens to rebel against or be angry with. Make no mistake, Lady Bird is often furious with her mother, and her mother is often as furious at Lady Bird. But there’s more to it than that; there’s genuine love beneath all the fighting. Lady Bird wants her mother’s approval just as much as she wants her to be less judgmental. They can just as easily fight over her untidy room as they can happily pick out dresses at the thrift store.
Lady Bird lets you know that these negative undercurrents are there, but it also doesn’t linger on them. The emotional moments are there, but the film comes across as a little more light hearted than other films of its genre, and I think that’s to the film’s credit. Gerwig doesn’t allow the transition from teenager to adulthood to mean too much; rebelling against your parents by getting high on Thanksgiving doesn’t fix anything, but neither does finally realizing how much your parents mean to you. Having a bad first time at sex sucks, but it doesn’t ruin you or anything about you. Friends can fall in and out of favour, but it doesn’t have to be so dramatic that you can’t reconcile with the ones that really mean something to you.
This is what I love about Lady Bird. It’s not a satisfying coming of age story. At the end of the film, you have some sense that it’s main characters have figured out a lot about themselves, but you also know that they still have no clue what they’re doing. Greta Gerwig hasn’t told a story about a single moment that makes everything clear, like The Breakfast Club does. She tells the story of a bunch of little moments; important moments, but still just moments from one girl’s final year of high school. This film doesn’t end with Saoirse Ronan’s character fist pumping the air across a football field; it ends with her realization that she has no idea what she’s doing. And that’s good. That’s real.
It’s also worth watching, because Ronan puts in a fantastic performance; the whole film is resting on its main character being likeable, and Ronan makes her loveable. She’s supported by a host of other stellar performances, characters who are only fleetingly involved in the story and yet still incredibly well fleshed out. There’s a great sense of who all of these people are, and a fantastic sense of the Catholic school they all attend. Out of that comes some genuinely brilliant comedy, and some of the most truthful and beautiful depictions of being a teenager to ever grace the screen. Bless this movie, and all that it stands for.