At first glance, the decision to set Lady Bird in 2002-2003 seems like little more than an autobiographical flourish on the part of writer-director Greta Gerwig. Gerwig herself came of age during the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, so it makes perfect sense that this would be her frame of reference in depicting the coming of age of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) as she makes her way through her senior year of high school.
As Boyhood depicted with its 12 year stretch through a similar time period, fashion and culture have not especially changed in this decade, with only the relative lack of cellphones and social media betraying that Lady Bird is set in anything other than a completely contemporary setting. This timeless feel is exacerbated by the fact that Lady Bird attends a Catholic school (with the uniform and everything) and her family is struggling with money, so they wouldn’t exactly be drowning in iPhones even if the film was set in the present.
And on the one hand, even if it was just an autobiographical flourish (Gerwig has been very clear that Lady Bird is not her literal life story), the setting would still highlight the universality of the themes running through Lady Bird. Teenagers will always ache and seek, girls will always chase boys that are wrong for them, boys will always be horny dopes, mothers (here personified by the mesmerizing Laurie Metcalf) and daughters will always clash, and nuns will always be less than cool with slow dancing.
Lady Bird is such a strong film, so beautifully observed and well-crafted, that it would surely resonate no matter when it came out or when it was set, but there’s something about it being released now, and being set then, that really makes the film sing and highlights what a quiet little masterpiece Gerwig has crafted here.
The most noticeable period detail in Lady Bird is the steady presence of news covering and discussing the then-new war in Afghanistan, along with a scattering of references to the events of 9/11 (depending on the exact date of Lady Bird and her mom’s opening car trip, it’s possible that Lady Bird opens less than a year after the towers fell).
Later in the film, Lady Bird’s douchey beau (played by the Call Me by Your Name kid, Timothée Chalamet), tries to mitigate a spat between himself and Lady Bird by writing off her anger as being insignificant in the face of the global conflict that he doesn’t even realize is only just beginning.
“It’s possible to be sad about more than one thing!” an irritated Lady Bird snaps.
Dipping into this sort of thing can easily overwhelm a film and become obnoxious (for example, the way Killing Them Softly ruined a perfectly nasty bit of neo-noir by stopping every five minutes to remind you that it was actually about the housing crisis and the 2008 presidential election, and therefore was actually Important and Smart and not “just” a crime film) but Gerwig keeps these touches low key.
I can say that from my own experience as a kid/teen during this time period, she gets it right. The non-stop flood of news concerning wars and terrorism and horror was a soundtrack to most American kids’ adolescence, but that didn’t stop us from being adolescent. It doesn’t stop a teenager from feeling like each heartbreak is the end of a world entire. The world being in a state of chaos doesn’t stop a young man or young woman from being determined to find their place in it. The hugeness of the world can make a person feel small, but to a teenager, their problems are the world, and their triumphs and failures are seismic in importance.
On a personal note, let me only say that I was in a lousy fucking mood when I went off to see Lady Bird, and I came out the theater dancing. The accolades and excitement surrounding the film might lead you to believe that Lady Bird is little more than a 90 minute assault of happiness, like Lisa Frank beating you to death with a My Little Pony figurine, but Lady Bird is not a film that tries to deny or hide how difficult life can be. Multiple characters struggle with depression, hearts are broken, relationships struggle and fade, time passes.
Thanks to social media, the tonnage of (bad) news has seemed unending and inexhaustible, especially for the last couple years and especially ever since That Orange Fuck took office. And against that seemingly endless tide, it can feel like moments of personal happiness or sorrow or any of the other huge range of emotions that we strange creatures experience are petty and useless in the grand scheme of things.
But as Lady Bird illustrates, a mad period in time does not stop people from being people. People hurt and love and cry over a Dave Matthews Band song and bicker and hurt and break and come together again, and far from being wastes of time, it is those intimacies which truly make us who we are and make this world worth living in.
Lady Bird and her family and friends lead messy lives, and they are no closer to being uncluttered by the time the film ends, just as our own lives are caught up in events that are beyond our control and beyond our ability to fix.
And that’s OK. The world is scary and unsafe and chaotic and it can often feel like it might, at any second, open up and swallow us whole. Lady Bird, in all its simple complexity, shows that you don’t have to feel dwarfed by the enormity of the entirety. Those seemingly fleeting moments of connection, be it love or anger or laughter or hurt, define a life, an age, just as much, if not more, than whatever headlines will get preserved for future generations.
Certain events will be in the history books, but others are what ensure that there will be people around to write and read and care about what goes inside those books. Lady Bird is all about the latter, and it proves that one is not more important than the other.
Also, points for the Dave Matthews Band stuff, that ruled.