When I left for college my mom cried and my dad tried not to. Emotion is part of exit; leaving rustles in the piles of emotions that lay dormant for most of our days. College, almost more than any other event, mobilizes these watery armies.
It’s not the end of the world, certainly, but the end of a world, and the events that make up one’s inevitably antsy senior year of high school carry a certain weight. Every circumstance is a “last”: the “last Thanksgiving,” the “last school dance” and so forth. Many parents devolve into a quivering mass at the thought of their child as an adultish being.
In Greta Gerwig’s new film Lady Bird, a film Gerwig wrote and directed but did not star in, this very sequence of collegiate upheaval is the dial around which everything spins. Although Gerwig herself does not play the bristling, relatable teen, Saoirse Ronan plays the part similarly to how I think Gerwig would have, and it has been documented that the role of Lady Bird was heavily collaborative. With her quirky articulations and endearing disposition, Gerwig always seems to be able to play the perfect humanist. She creates a sort of verbal and physical jazz, an unconscious, improvisational language that we all understand through our own awkwardness. In Lady Bird, Ronan picks up Gerwig’s attitudes. Through flushing the geyser of her consciousness, Ronan exudes a similar spirit.
The film centers around Ronan’s character, Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, and stories her last year of high school in what appears to be a fairly typical bildungsroman. There is family strife, shown by the oft bitterness that courses through mother-daughter relationships, and there is the mild-mannered father who assuages his daughter’s windy emotions. Outside the family unit, though, Lady Bird constantly claims to others that she “lives on the wrong side of the tracks,” and the McGuffin of the film is the dichotomy between Lady Bird’s wish to leave Sacramento to go to college on the east coast, and her family’s inability to finance it, both emotionally and physically. Lady Bird wants to go to a school that looks and feels like Yale, but is probably not Yale, since her grades bar her from the Ivy League. Her college aspirations, though, are trammeled by her family’s financial standing. Her father has recently lost his job, and her mother, a nurse at a local hospital, pulls double shifts to make ends meet. Lady Bird is on a scholarship at a private Catholic school, and will need massive financial aid to attend college anywhere. Her mother pushes for a state school, which she claims even then the family will barely be able to afford, and she discourages Lady Bird from applying anywhere else outside of California. There are trope-ish potholes: (verbal) fights, boys, friends, sex and everything else that is attendant to coming of age (although there are various deviations from fairytale norms, as Gerwig shows us).
But Gerwig’s new film is different from all others for a reason that may seem a bit esoteric: Gerwig, whether she knows it or not, is deeply Tolstoyan.
The Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy is known for a great many things, among them writing the cultural touchstone for non-reader’s quips: “Wow, what are you reading, War and Peace?” Any weighty tome assumes the girth and gravitas of Tolstoy’s longest novel. Tolstoy’s greatest talent, though, lies not in his ability to write at length, but in his acute observation of the human gesture. The exactitude with which he breathes sentences about human feeling makes him a master humanist. As Isaac Babel put it, “If the world could write by itself, it would write like Tolstoy.” It is not through retooled detail that Tolstoy pushes sentences. The small, sweet, but ultimately ornamental and eddied observations of the romantic intelligence do not dominate him. Instead, his prose enjoys a natural colloquium with life itself. It is precisely the opposite of a zero-sum gain; it is a symbiotic musical number with existence. Tolstoy’s writing and the world around it are one undulating thing, utterly real and banal and natural and true. Matthew Arnold warns of naïve, artistic attribution to Tolstoy. In James Wood’s review of War and Peace, Wood quotes Arnold: “Matthew Arnold’s admonition [is] that we should not take Anna Karenina as a work of art but as a ‘piece of life.’” This “piece of life” is exactly what Gerwig conjures in both her acting and in Lady Bird. Everything in the film is exactly mundane, loosely guided by natural law and shown to us as it is lived by the characters themselves. There is no conscious preparation of the romantic, in the verbal or the physical. It is when Lady Bird has sex for the first time, when she confesses to her friend Jules that she actually prefers dry humping to the actual thing, that the viewer is struck not by the artistry of the mise en scène, but by the personal launched towards the universal. A.N. Wilson asserts that Tolstoy’s War and Peace, “for seven-eighths of the time … does not feel as if it is being narrated at all.” Lady Bird feels much the same. It is as though we are rereading journal entries of our own, as though the degree of separation between art and audience is exactly none. A world has not been created by Gerwig and Ronan. They simply decided to look at ours.
Lady Bird is a film dominated by what seem to be tropes of the sub-genre: going to college, the unofficial prerequisites that come with leaving home and the push-pull chafe between the love and hate of a mother and daughter. But Gerwig injects, or rather simply plays back to us, the naturalness of such a moment. This is not, keep in mind, the fetishized “realism” of some films. Lady Bird, as a work alive, is more urbane. The film is so touching because it is so organically conceived and written. It is through its negation of art that it becomes transcendent. James Wood tries to paraphrase this sort of sentiment, claiming that Tolstoy’s message to us, similar to Gerwig’s, is this: “ ‘I will gladly help you to read Natasha’s or Pierre’s or the little princess’s face, but really anyone
could do it. You don’t really need me. And you don’t really need me because these are the largest, most universal, most natural emotions, not the precious little sweets of the stylist novelist.’” Anyone can do it. Everyone has already done it. Lady Bird is just reminding us of what it was like. We are just watching the world spin.”