First One to Cry, Wins: The Supporting Characters of Lady Bird

Which scene in Lady Bird made you cry first?

I wobbled when Danny (Lucas Hedges) broke down in Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan)’s arms but it was the following scene of Father Leviatch (Stephen Henderson)’s therapy session with her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf) that prompted my first tears to fall.

I could write hundreds of thousands of words on the magic of Lady Bird, how it enriches and devastates and makes me laugh and makes me wince and makes me think about my sometimes strained relationship with my mother. But what I loved the most, even more than the honest depiction of that ever so tangled mother and daughter relationship were the beautifully nuanced supporting characters that helped give the film its heart.

The positioning of Lady Bird as the protagonist of the film surrounded by supporting characters very much mirrors her self perception. She sees herself at the centre of her world and her family, friends and boyfriends are present as contributors to her story. As she writes the names of the boys she likes on her bedroom wall, a visual expression of her identity, so she writes them into her life and crosses them out when their contribution is complete. We have our familiar teen movie cut outs but with astonishingly few words Greta Gerwig manages to imbue them with depth and humanity and make them so much more than planets orbiting Lady Bird’s sun.

Julie (Beanie Feldstein), the dorky best friend, is estranged from her father, has her mother’s new boyfriend to adjust to and must endure the inevitable disappointment of a crush on her maths teacher as well as her friend suddenly deciding to dump her to improve her social standing. Danny, the clean cut boyfriend, is struggling with his sexuality. Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), the dirtbag boyfriend, is watching his father suffer from cancer. Jenna (Odeya Rush), the popular girl, will never leave Sacramento and reigning over high school is probably as good as life is ever going to get for her. Lady Bird’s father Larry (Tracy Letts) is about to be made redundant with little hope of getting another job at his age and is shamed by his inability to provide. Marion works double shifts as a psychiatric nurse and endures the strain of holding the family together through their financial troubles while her daughter is determined to rebel. And when Father Leviatch, the drama teacher, sets his class a task where the first person to cry on cue wins he’s the one abruptly overcome by emotion to the bewilderment of his students.

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Every major supporting character in this film is drawn with such extraordinary tenderness and care. Most of their pain goes unnoticed by Lady Bird and Gerwig only gives us glimpses of it; one line, one lingering shot, one moment, an oxygen tank placed next to an armchair. Father Leviatch, described by the shooting script as “crushed by bottomless despair”, implores Marion not to tell her daughter about his suffering and she keeps that promise. We are granted access to what Lady Bird doesn’t see; her parents’ financial difficulties, Julie’s crush on their teacher, Father Leviatch’s grief, and we come to understand that these supporting characters are carrying burdens of their own that Lady Bird is oblivious to. As they argue in the car at the beginning of the film Marion tells her that “Nobody is asking you to be perfect. Just considerate would do”, and that’s largely how she’ll become what her mother hopes she can be: the very best version of herself. Various events throughout the film wake her up to the people around her, from Danny sobbing from his secret shame and fear in front of her to realising that her parents have kept her father’s depression hidden from her for years. When she reconciles with Julie on prom night and asks her why she’s crying it feels as if this is the first conversation they’ve had for a long time in which Lady Bird hasn’t been the centre of attention. She’s learnt to be considerate.

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Her journey culminates in her decision to use the name Christine again. “It’s the name you gave me”, she tells her mother, “it’s a good one”. She understands that it’s a good name precisely because her mother gave it to her and she is now able to appreciate everything her mother has given her while still striking out on her own. In shedding the name Lady Bird she has quite literally become herself but a wiser, kinder and more empathetic version. In other words, she’s on her way to becoming the very best version of herself.

The supporting characters of Lady Bird, even mostly comic ones like Kyle, are written with such delicate humanity that I was startled by how real they felt. Just as Lady Bird/Christine does I came to see these characters as people with complex, largely hidden interior lives that exist independently from her. “Be kind; everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about” is a quote we all know, despite no one really knowing exactly where it originates from. I was never much of a Lady Bird. I never dyed my hair, smoked weed or even went to a house party as a teenager. Or an adult. But of course I was and remain guilty of teenage self absorption. I was moved to tears at various points throughout the film and wept pretty much constantly throughout the last twenty minutes or so. Lady Bird felt like a hand on my shoulder, politely but firmly shifting my stance and turning my attention away from myself and towards the people who are part of my daily life. After reading her college application letter Sister Sarah-Joan (Lois Smith) asks Lady Bird “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing? Love and attention?” and the beautifully realised supporting characters in this film have encouraged me to be more empathetic, consider those battles I know nothing about and to above all pay attention.

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