Back in 2002, a war was waging. In Sacramento, California, Lady Bird forged ahead each day closer to escaping her suffocating hometown, desperately reaching out for acceptance and reverence from those she identified as worthy of determining her worth. Lady Bird offered her innocent and youth up — as a bridge she was eager to cross that would hopefully lead her through to freedom, adulthood. Across the country and across the oceans, other wars were waging, too. Some, like mine, were similar to Lady Bird’s, and others, like the one America was facing, used guns and bombs for ammo instead of sex and Dave Matthews Band songs. For the millennial generation, both of these wars created a perfect storm of an assault on our innocence.
In Lady Bird’s opening scene, Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) decides it would be less painful to jump out of a moving vehicle than stay in the car conversing with her mother for another single second. I’d say that’s a fair snapshot of what it feels like to be 17 at any given moment of the day. Every minute can feel like a struggle, from being hyper aware of a subtle change in your body the morning after you’ve lost your virginity to witnessing the two tallest buildings in the world topple to the ground with thousands of people inside them. The shock, the awe, the agony. You feel it all, and you feel it all over.
Many of us waged war against our childhoods as America waged war against terrorism. Lady Bird clings to the cute boy she’s been crushing on, hoping to lose her innocence by giving it to him. Meanwhile, Danny (Lucas Hedges) is fighting his own battle within himself, rejecting Christine’s innocence and trying to maintain his, to tuck his innocence away like something precious and pure. Because when Danny loses his innocence, he gains the understanding of his sexual identity of a gay man, which is not a bridge he wants to cross as swiftly or excitedly as Lady Bird heads towards her own. Once Lady Bird catches him hooking up with another guy, for her, it was deception. For him, it was survival. The casualties and strategies of war.
When Lady Bird does finally cross that finish line, shedding her virginity just in time for high school graduation, she realized she has arrived there alone. Whereas Danny rejected her innocence because he knew he couldn’t care for it the way she needed, Kyle (Timothée Chalamet) stole it, leading her to believe they were negotiating an even trade. For Lady Bird again, this was deception. For Kyle, it was victory. She has both won and lost at the same time. Isn’t that how we all feel when a significant battle in war has ended? Once you’ve crossed over, you can’t go back. You’re bound to be different for it — maybe even better for it — but even though these growing pains don’t feel the same for everyone, they still hurt.
Because we’re human, we exist to feel fury and pain just as we survive to feel joy and flourish. The fruits of victory are sweet, almost making us forget the sour taste of loss. Lady Bird loses both her best friend and her parents at various moments throughout Greta Gerwig’s film, but — in the moment — she feels like a winner. When she abandons Julie (Beanie Feldstein), the steadfast reminder of home and childhood, for Jenna (Odeya Rush), the symbol of shallow status and “big city” wealth, Lady Bird sacrifices her dignity and happiness for what she thinks will win the war. She sheds her home and real identity to take on the persona she thinks she needs to transform into an older, wiser, wealthier and better version of herself. But those fruits of victory? They don’t taste so sweet when you have to enjoy them alone.
Once Lady Bird finally escapes her home and her youth for college, that’s exactly how she feels. Alone. She’s made it, she’s won the war and emerged on the other side of the carnage. Viewers never learn whether Lady Bird decides to stay in New York or return to Sacramento, but what matters is that the win over her own innocence has left her feeling emptier than she expected. She’s homesick. She’s sad. Earlier in the film, during a conversation with Kyle, Lady Bird tells him that “different things can be sad, it’s not all war,” but isn’t it? Maybe it’s not the war. Maybe this war of innocence is one that’s never really won or lost. Maybe we just take life one battle at a time.
Beth McDonough (@bmacduhnuh) is a full-time freelance writer and MA student in the greater Pittsburgh area. You can usually find her reading an Agatha Christie novel or talking about movies on Twitter.