Everybody with Moviepass is suddenly a film critic this month following the release of hip young thang Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird. Not since the release of Goodfellas in 1990 have so many business majors praised a director’s “impeccable timing, man, impeccable timing”.
I saw the film. Because I, too, am a hip young thang. And there are some things to say.
The maturity, the self-assuredness, of a character like the titular Ladybird is interesting enough, but only if the story supports a unique perspective. Now this isn’t to suggest that all interesting people have to “live through something” (because not all orphan-turned-superhero movies have something new to say), but it is to suggest that if part of the goal of a film is to explore the undervalued coming-of-age female perspective, the least a writer could do is put the character in a unique predicament or give the protagonist a unique voice. Ladybird’s inner-serenity did not ring true of a troubled seventeen-year-old desperate for attention or praise, although that is what the dialogue constantly assured me that she was.
Ladybird’s voice – a voice of social isolation or familial abandonment or quirk – has chirped on more poetically and distinctively in films far preceding its production: Juno, for example, explored a middle-American teenager with a taste for hard rock, weasley boys, and hamburger-themed room decorations. Her taste is specific, her preferences unexpected and inconsistent. She lacks the pretension of a preaching author, but maintains the imagined superiority of a young person who believes that they do, in fact, know best. Say Anything – a movie whose screenplay is inarguably lacking in other regards – presents a studious intellectual who struggles with loneliness and regret; she is prideful of her hard work, but resents the sacrifice in quiet, nearly unseen ways (key word nearly). She is loyal, but dependent, confident but frightened. These female protagonists are actually complicated individuals who are constantly in contrast with themselves. They are messy and clumsy and hypocritical. Flawed, you know? And they resonate with audiences for that reason, and because women in cinema are so often saturated in coolness (because that is what men prefer women to be – easy). It is this inner chaos that Ladybird lacks. She approaches enemies and love interests and her mother with the same, unbelievable steadiness. Her fear of rejection, of loss, of anything is invisible or just entirely absent. She flirts with a false insecurity, as if the prospect of embarrassment is foreign to her. Her pre-prom maturity and selflessness rises from the abyss without warning, all for the sake of a satisfying ending – an unnecessary dessert course for any film, let alone one delving into the depths of adolescence, a notoriously dark period in anyone’s life.
The American adolescence, as it is, stumbles sloppily towards graduation and second puberty. Few, if any, have ever gracefully jetéd across the stage as Ladybird does. For these reasons, among others, the aspect of realism and relatability were entirely lost on me, and I was left unimpressed and, frankly, rather lonely. Seven years of art school later, I have become numb to the supposedly titillating idea of quirky teenage antics. Pink hair paired with Doc Martens does not make someone “edgy” or immediately earn them a spot at the relatability table. I have also befriended and worked alongside young women with stories far more fascinating – not because they have survived gut-wrenching surgeries or financially supported their families since the age of ten or rock-climbed the Rockies mid-December. Stories do not need to be exceptional or outlandish to be considered fascinating. Young women who grow in minute ways over long periods of time are far more compelling, and a writer does not need to travel far to find them.
Ladybird suffered in a terminal way from a lack of character specificity and complexity. The “whatever, I’m gonna do me” chick has run her course, and is no longer strong or compelling enough to carry a two hour film. Sorry. I want characters who are convicts with perfect diction, underdogs with good intentions, amputees with stamp collections; they will always be more sympathetic, more comedic, and acquire a more unique perspective over the course of a story than Ladybird and her slick moves ever could.
(Listen to more Kimya Dawson, btw)