From Juno to Lady Bird… and Beyond
Growing up among the strip malls and McMansion clusters of suburban New Jersey, I spent a lot of time immersed in other peoples’ coming-of-age stories. Surrounded as I was by uninspiring sprawl, I turned my attention to stories about young people whose unremarkable circumstances gave way, in the end, to remarkable experiences. And as a fledgling film buff, I was especially drawn to indie coming-of-age movies about sensitive young protagonists. These movies gave me so much hope that I might someday escape my own homogenous surroundings that I didn’t even realize how homogenous they were in their own right.
Hidden away in my parents’ basement, I’d compulsively cycle through movies like Almost Famous, Into the Wild, and Garden State, soothed by their comfortingly familiar composition. There was the introspective male protagonist, the oppressive setting from which he escaped, the life-changing moments he experienced. And of course, there was always The Girl—the unattainably cool/endearingly quirky/impossibly attractive object of the protagonist’s affections. Even as I empathized with the male lead’s journey, The Girl was always on hand to remind me of my own limitations. I could enjoy as many coming-of-age movies as I liked, but I could never expect to find someone like me at the center of one… Until suddenly, I did.
When Juno arrived on the scene in 2007, my 17-year-old mind was comprehensively blown. Here was a movie that placed a teenage female character squarely at the center of its story—hell, the whole damn thing was named after her. But it wasn’t just the fact of Juno’s female protagonist that was so revelatory to me at the time—it was the character of Juno MacGuff herself. As portrayed by Ellen Page, Juno was witty, precocious, and markedly unglamorous. She wasn’t just The Girl in some boy’s story, she was a person with interiority, agency, and perspective. And even as Juno MacGuff opened my eyes to how complex and dynamic young female movie characters could be, Diablo Cody and her Oscar-winning screenplay gave me a blueprint for the career I would one day go on to pursue.
Ten years after Juno first blew the hinges off what was possible for teenage girls in mainstream movies, Lady Bird came along and brought the entire house down. Released in 2017, Lady Bird is a coming-of-age story centered around Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a young woman living in Sacramento in the early aughts. It’s easy to find comparisons between Juno and Lady Bird, from their cleverly offbeat titular characters to their nuanced depictions of teenage love and friendship. But where Juno offered a much-needed alternative to the young male archetype so commonly found in coming-of-age movies, Lady Bird transcended the form altogether, thanks to the singular sensibility of its creator, Greta Gerwig.
As written and directed by Gerwig, Lady Bird is fully invested in the perspective of its imperfect, mercurial protagonist, not just in content, but in tone and style. The film flickers by in a series of intimate snapshots, all of which are grounded in Lady Bird’s experience, relationships, and growth. Gerwig isn’t interested in convincing anyone that Lady Bird’s story deserves to be told. Instead, she takes that deservedness as a given. In a culture where young women are constantly called upon to prove and defend their value, Lady Bird reminds us that the stories of young women are just as inherently worth being told as anybody else’s.
But it’s not just young women who love Lady Bird. Critics and viewers of all ages and genders are singing the praises of the film. It’s scored a nearly perfect rating on the review site Rotten Tomatoes, and it just won two Golden Globes with two nominations to boot. Just like my teenage self was able to empathize with characters like Chris McCandless and William Miller, it turns out that men are perfectly capable of relating to well-wrought female characters like Christine McPherson. Go figure.
“One of the things that Greta and I definitely want people to know is this absolutely is for girls to go and see and go, ‘Oh, I can feel like that and it’s okay and I can make a movie and hopefully it would be seen and I will be listened to,’” says Saoirse Ronan, who plays Lady Bird in the film, “But also boys get it! The men I’ve spoken to who have seen it have actually said, ‘I was Lady Bird in high school. I relate to who she was.’”
The critical and box office success of Lady Bird proves that audiences are capable of empathizing with stories of people who are not exactly like them in every way… but of course, we already knew that. For so long, women, people of color, and other minority groups have been asked and expected to relate almost exclusively with white male protagonists in film and just about every other medium. And listen, I have no problem with white male protagonists—provided that they’re not the only characters whose stories are being told.
Of course, Juno and Lady Bird are only two entries in a long list of films that are widening the coming-of-age playing field. In the last ten years alone, movies like Moonlight, Pariah, and Blue is the Warmest Color have introduced protagonists of different races, nationalities, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds into the canon. After all, the experience of navigating adolescence and growing into one’s identity is hardly unique to young white men (or, it should be said, to young white women).
It’s my hope that movies like Lady Bird will pave the way for an even greater expansion of the coming-of-age genre. I’ll always love the movies that got me through high school, but I’m thrilled that today’s teenagers have movies like Lady Bird and Moonlight to binge-watch in their parents’ basements. If we want to see the coming-of-age genre become even more diverse, it’s up to us as moviegoers to support the efforts of filmmakers who challenge our preconceptions about which stories deserve to be told.
Everyone benefits when a greater variety of voices are heard and celebrated in entertainment. Not only do audience members get the opportunity to empathize with experiences other than their own, we also get to watch way more interesting movies. And who doesn’t want that?
Photos: Lady Bird movie cover, second photo Greta Gerwig for IndieWire, third photo Greta Gerwig (left) and Saoirse Ronan (right) en route for the London Film Festival by Charlie Gray