This is where the question of the film’s relatability becomes most pertinent, I think. Who hasn’t wanted to get out of the place where they’re from only to find that they miss it? Who doesn’t want to change the name they were given only to discover they don’t want to forget who they are?
Lady Bird is the story of a girl attending a private Catholic school in Sacremento, CA. It is the 2002-03 academic year, and she is a senior. There are many more details about the girl’s life, which I’ll get to later, but first I want to mention names. The girl’s name is Christine. It’s the name she’s gone by her whole life.
But at the start of her senior year, she starts calling herself Lady Bird. She insists that everyone does the same, including her parents and her longtime best friend. It’s one of those semi-coherent stabs at individuation so particular to adolescence. But at the end of the film (spoiler alert, I suppose), Lady Bird finds herself at a college party. She’s made it to the East Coast, just like she wanted. A guy asks her name. “Christine,” she tells him. Now that she’s managed to get away from her family and her home, she accepts the name she was originally given. If you’re anything like me, you will find this experience highly relatable.
This brings up a common item of discussion about this movie in particular, and works of art more generally. “Relatable” has to be one of the most frequent terms of praise used by critics and audiences nowadays. Movies and books and television shows are often judged by how effectively they serve as mirrors for different audiences, whether or not given viewers can see themselves in the story and characters. There are limits to this approach, of course. Stories that may not be relatable may still have aesthetic merit. And not everyone will find the same stories, of course. But the issue of relatability in regards to Lady Bird is one that I want to look at more closely, because it’s so crucial to the effect the film has on viewers.
Part of the reason why so many viewers relate to the film’s story is that it recreates a specific moment in the recent past with uncanny accuracy. If, like me, you were in your late teens or early 20s during the buildup to the Iraq War, you’ll find this film to be a veritable Proustian madeleine. Dave Matthews Band, Howard Zinn paperbacks, shopping at Goodwill: Lady Bird covers the rituals of the era with a level of precision that’s at once exact and unfussy. Others may find the social setting relatable. Lady Bird is from a lower-middle class family who’s dug into their savings to send their daughter to a good Catholic school in the affluent part of town. Many critics and viewers who went to Catholic school have gushed about how much the film gets right, little details like surreptitiously snacking on communion wafers before they’ve been consecrated.
More than any social detail, however, what makes Lady Bird so relatable for so many viewers is its depiction of the push-pull relationship with one’s home. Lady Bird complains at length about the dullness of Sacramento, dubbing it “the Midwest of California” and longing to move somewhere on the East Coast, someplace with culture. But she’s also alert to the city’s uniqueness. When she writes about Sacramento for her college application, a nun who’s tutoring her remarks on how much her love for her home shines through her writing. And when she finally does it make to college in New York, she finds herself feeling out of place among that culture. People there haven’t even heard of Sacramento. It’s here that she starts calling herself Christine again.
This is where the question of the film’s relatability becomes most pertinent, I think. Who hasn’t wanted to get out of the place where they’re from only to find that they miss it? Who doesn’t want to change the name they were given only to discover they don’t want to forget who they are? Much of what makes this film so delightful is that it tells this familiar, near-universal story with an eye for specificity – the look and feel of a particular place and time. It’s a wonderful story that should resonate with most any viewer, no matter who they are, where they live or what their name is.