Smugglivus

Lady Bird Closes 2017 with a Long-Deserved Celebration of Girlhood

Welcome to Smugglivus 2017! Throughout this month, we will have guests – authors and bloggers alike – looking back at their favorite reads of 2017, looking forward to events and upcoming books in 2018, and more.

Our Smugglivus guest is Lena Wilson, author of “Accelerants” an upcoming novella from Book Smugglers Publishing!

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Lady Bird Closes 2017 with a Long-Deserved Celebration of Girlhood

You’re never too old to grow up – that’s the truth on which the coming-of-age film genre founds itself. In 2017, some of the world’s most creative directors brought adolescence to brilliant life, and did so in such an accessible, universal way that viewers were able to relate to those youthful protagonists regardless of their own ages. From taciturn young men navigating gay life to precocious girls taking on the world, 2017 cinema reignited the inner child in all of us. Such heartbreakingly human stories show us how impactful film can be. A well-acted, empathetic script can speak to million of people, regardless of budget or distributor.

In 2017, it’s clear no film has captured the modern imagination with quite as much ferocity, empathy and joy as Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. This Telluride Film Festival premiere follows Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson, a delightfully cunning teenager eager to make the most of her last year in a city she hates. Set in 2002, the film chronicles Lady Bird’s adventures as she navigates dating, familial conflict and friendship politics during her senior year of high school in Sacramento. That sounds like standard fare, but the resulting work is so breathtakingly human you’re guaranteed to hear guffaws – and at least a few sniffles – in the theatre. A straightforward film with sparse camerawork and a typical narrative, Lady Bird doesn’t do anything too revolutionary on the surface. However, it delivers such a well-acted, well-written story that it should hereafter serve as an industry standard.

Coming-of-age lit has always dominated the classics, as adults revisit their awkward years through characters like Holden Caulfield, Tom Sawyer, and Harry Potter. It’s an oft-celebrated genre of film as well, producing such critical darlings as Boyhood, Dead Poets Society, and The Graduate. The most critically-acclaimed, commercially successful coming-of-age works tend to be about (straight, white) male adolescence. This is perhaps how Lady Bird became one of the most refreshing movies of the decade – it’s the first successful film in recent memory to depict female adolescence.

That’s not to tokenize or reduce the film’s accomplishments in any way. Lady Bird would be an incredible work of art, and Greta Gerwig a genius for creating it, even if the cinematic conversation was overrun with girls’ stories. Still, it’s awe-inspiring to see the movie do so well in a society that overwhelmingly ignores and trivializes teenage girls, both on-screen and off. Female-made, female-led coming-of-age films have always been fantastic, but the world is just now catching on. I can’t imagine a world without Girlhood, Jennifer’s Body, The Runaways, Whip It, Pariah, Marie Antoinette, or Clueless, and I certainly wouldn’t be a cinephile without those movies. So why is Lady Bird the film that’s finally sold the world on teen girls?

Maybe it’s because Lady Bird was marketed by distribution powerhouse A24 (whose logo you may remember from the opening credits of films like Under the Skin, Ex Machina, Room, and Moonlight). Maybe it’s because writer-director Greta Gerwig came into the game with considerable indie clout, starring in critic favorites like Frances Ha, Jackie, and 20th Century Women. But I think Lady Bird has ultimately been so successful, both critically and financially, because it’s come to theatres at a very opportune time. The new age of #MeToo is upon us, where, by some magic, society has finally decided to give a damn about misogynistic sexual violence. Lady Bird is a fun, honest movie that allows viewers to access their empathy. In essence, it is the antidote to Hollywood’s long-standing toxicity.

We need movies about women by women now more than ever. Since film is (at least in my view) the most immersive art form, it’s significant to see stories that treat women with compassion, complexity, and grace. The coming-of-age genre provides us with a unique opportunity for that level of connection. Evolution is at the root of humanity, as we all strive to accept the terrifying variability of life. Adolescence is the first real period of change for most, and thus a uniquely relatable and cathartic subject matter. Exquisitely-drawn tales of female adolescence ask us to empathize with womanhood itself – a lesson that many of us could stand to learn. And re-learn. And then re-learn again.

Even if you didn’t come of age in 2002 as a girl in a Sacramento Catholic school, Lady Bird will still make you feel something. That’s because the film is founded on a kind of empathetic world-building where even the tertiary characters matter. The script constructs an entire life for its main character, daring viewers not to adore her. For 90 minutes, audience members are asked to occupy Lady Bird’s very life. Even if you didn’t go to a hell-themed prom or lose your virginity to a self-absorbed pseudo-anarchist, you feel like you were there. Watching Lady Bird is like reading a memoir written by one of your very best friends. Such immersive stories about women and girls demand that audiences value womanhood itself – if only for an hour and a half.

Lady Bird isn’t the only female-directed coming-of-age film that revolutionizes the genre, but it is the most popular one to do so in years. This year saw similarly illustrious takes on adolescence from directors Eliza Hittman (Beach Rats) and Margaret Betts (Novitiate). For whatever reason, their works have not enjoyed the same deserved notoriety, but all of these films give us vital access to marginalized characters. Whether learning about closeted gay life on the hypermasculine beaches of Brooklyn or reconciling the difficulties of teenage class struggle, these films ask us to step outside of ourselves and practice compassion for those who are disproportionately denied it. Such an exercise in empathy can only improve us and our culture.

So here’s to all the women who made art this year, and all the women and girls who saw reflections of themselves in a film or a book or a song or an exhibit in 2017. Works like Lady Bird show us that radical understanding is a skill, and one that we can all be taught.

I hope to see more female-directed film in the years to come, and better and girlier coming-of-age tales.

Lena Wilson is a film and media writer based in western Massachusetts. Her work has been published on such websites as Screen Rant and The Playlist, and she recommends and reviews online media in her bi-monthly column, “Stream Queen” (valleyadvocate.com/author/Lena-Wilson). When not striving to bring attention to films and series that prioritize women and LGBT people, she creates those stories for herself. Her first full-length play, Fraying Live Wires Tend to Give off Sparks, premiered October 2016 as part of the LezPlay Screenplay and Stage Play contest held by Chicago-based theatre company Pride Films and Plays.
Accelerants is her first novella and first widely-published work of fiction. The story was inspired by her own experiences with phobias, as well as by her effervescent friend and fellow writer, Read Davidson. You can find her on Twitter, sharing lesbian tirades and anecdotes about her dog, @LenaLWilson.

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