Gay characters have long been a hallmark of teen movies, but usually as colorful sidekicks—like Mean Girls’ “too gay to function” Damian—or as an obstacle for the protagonist to overcome, as when Clueless’ Cher is “totally buggin” to discover her crush Christian is queer. Rarely do even the smartest teen comedies offer real insight into what it’s like being gay in high school.
But Lady Bird,, Greta Gerwig’s solo directorial debut, treats its coming out narrative with a well-crafted honesty that’s rare to the point of being revolutionary.
Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), the movie’s alternately insecure and headstrong heroine, first sets eyes on Danny (Lucas Hedges) during auditions for the school musical. Her eyes fill with hearts at the first note of his song selection: “Giants in the Sky” from Into the Woods(!).
After a few more flirty encounters, the two declare their love under the stars, where Lady Bird jokes that Danny is free to touch her boobs. (Though Danny says he respects her too much, Lady Bird doesn’t offer us a knowing wink.) On the musical’s opening night, when Lady Bird walks in on Danny kissing another boy, she’s obviously shocked and angry.
But rather than frame Danny’s queerness as a betrayal or focus on Lady Bird’s response, the story quickly moves on: Lady Bird falls for bad boy Kyle (Timothée Chalamet, who plays a gay teen himself in Call Me By Your Name) and Danny fades into the background for a bit. Once the smoke clears, though, the two reconnect in a simple but effective scene that’s positioned as more formative for him than it is for her, the movie’s purported protagonist.
Danny comes by the coffee shop where Lady Bird works to apologize, but she keeps her defenses up, clearly still hurt. He breaks down, begging her not to tell anyone because he’s scared and needs time to figure out how to tell his family. She takes him into a long embrace, and he cries in the arms of his first confidant. We watch Danny get exactly what he needs from her in that moment to face the road ahead—love and forgiveness. What Lady Bird takes away from their reconciliation is left unsaid.
The film obviously benefits from having two charming Oscar-nominated stars (Ronan for Brooklyn and Hedges for Manchester by the Sea). But what truly sets Lady Bird apart is the careful attention Gerwig, who also wrote the screenplay, gives to the teenage experience. Confusing platonic and romantic love is practically a rite of passage for queer adolescents (and more than a few straight ones, too).
It’s a staple of coming-of-age narratives, as well—but if, as Gerwig posits, attention is a form of love, Lady Bird is among the most loving depictions in movie history.