ON LADY BIRD AND SEARCHING FOR MY OWN JOHN HUGHES EXPERIENCE
Growing up in the northern suburbs of Chicago, my childhood and adolescence literally had the backdrop of a John Hughes movie. Parts of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club were filmed at my high school, and John Hughes himself was a fellow alumnus. As a teenager, I felt like I was supposed to have a certain kind of experience—dates, proms, love triangles, keggers—as told to me by the movies and television shows that I consumed voraciously, and it didn’t help that I grew up at Ground Zero of pop culture’s most famous high school cannon.
My graduating class recently threw a 20-year reunion. I drove up to my old high school for a tour led by the alumni association. Stepping through the doors of your old school is like entering a time machine. Though my clothing didn’t automatically turn into a pair of baggy corduroys, a Coed Naked Lacrosse t-shirt, and an oversized men’s flannel (Class of ‘97 y’all), the old feelings of insecurity and desperation washed over me like a thick cloud of Bath & Body Works Country Apple body spray. My husband accompanied me on the tour, and as we approached the school, he asked “So am I gonna see the AV closet where you used to make out with boys?” and I said “More like the bench in the hallway where I sat reading Catcher in the Rye and crying about not having a boyfriend.” Throughout high school, I was not the popular kid, or the weirdo loner in the vein of Ally Sheedy, or the sassy outspoken Mary Stuart-Masterson-esque tomboy. I didn’t fit into any sort of Breakfast Club archetype.
This is why I fell in love with the movie Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig. The titular protagonist, played by Saiorse Ronan, is a teenage girl who upon reaching her senior year at a Catholic high school, is pointedly told by one of her teachers that she’s skated through school while making such little effort to get involved that she wasn’t even aware they had a drama department. Lady Bird (whose given name is Christine but she renamed herself in a statement of self-expression) dreams of a different, more artistic life—one that she believes she can find if she only moves to the East Coast away from her hometown of Sacramento, California. While it follows many of the same beats as most coming-of-age movies (Lady Bird auditions for a play, has her first boyfriend then first break-up, fights with her mom, and goes through a rift with her best friend), every moment of the film feels authentic and painfully real down to the 2002-era setting. Dave Matthews Band songs underscore emotional moments, and Lady Bird’s CD collection consists of mostly Greatest Hits albums. Lady Bird’s family struggles financially, causing tension between her and her mother who doesn’t think that Lady Bird’s lack of ambition warrants the expense of an East Coast college.
During her senior year, Lady Bird tries on new personas: theater geek, popular girl hanger-on, and my personal favorite, nun prankster. I remember going through my own phases during my high school years, whether performing in the chorus of 42nd Street to dipping a toe into the shallowest of nu-hippie waters to going to the hair salon and requesting the Rachel™. But I think I found my true self in the cafeteria, where for 30 minutes every day, I sat with my friends and quoted Simpsons jokes back and forth. It was there where I discovered that at heart, I’m a nerd, a comedy geek, and pop culture aficionado (Present Day Me is 38 years old and just bought a Thor: Ragnarok t-shirt online). Likewise, Lady Bird eventually discards some of the personas she tries on, returning to the best friend who she had ditched previously so they can spend their prom night together laughing and eating an entire brick of cheese.
The film captures the excitement, fear, and awkwardness of growing up. The onset of adulthood can be exhilarating—Lady Bird celebrates her eighteenth birthday by buying a pack of cigarettes, a lotto scratch-off, and a Playgirl magazine just because she can—but it comes packaged with the uncertainty of moving away from the comforts of your childhood. At the end of the film, Lady Bird discovers a deep sense of love for Sacramento that had been buried beneath her derision and itch to escape. She reminisces for the curves of its roads and the feeling of driving through the streets she knows by heart.
I had a similar wave of nostalgia come over me as I walked through the hallways of my old school. I remembered the locker I shared with my best friend, once lined with glossy magazine photos of Leonardo Dicaprio. But much like Leonardo Dicaprio’s face and body, my school reflects the constant march of time. The cafeteria where we used to quote the Simpsons has been remodeled with higher partitions and locking double doors as safety precautions in the event of a school shooting. I’m a much different person now than I was back in the days when we’d drive through the football field parking lot blasting Jagged Little Pill, but it’s kinda nice to go back and reminisce about that time of my life, when I had no idea what my future would look like.
When I am around teenagers now, like my nieces and nephews or my friends’ kids, I am almost moved to tears thinking of the world they inherited, with its school shootings and anxiety-creating news cycle, juxtaposed with the ocean of potential that lays in their future. I want to encourage them as they grow older to experiment with their identity—their nicknames and politics and sexuality and opinions—to make art, to have shitty jobs that lead to fulfilling jobs, to study or volunteer abroad, to fall in love over and over again, to mess up shit and to master shit, to pursue whatever is their personal equivalent of an East Coast school. The journey will be exhilarating, heartbreaking, painful, and beautiful, and it doesn’t matter if it looks like a John Hughes movie or not. It’s your own story.