This article was originally produced as part of the NYFF Critics Academy.
“Lady Bird always said she lived on the wrong side of the tracks, I didn’t know there were actual tracks.” So says Danny (Lucas Hedges) almost flippantly in “Lady Bird.” In the film, class plays a large role in how the titular character interacts with everyone she comes in contact with. The movie is seemingly a coming of age story about a girl who’s simply trying to make her social ends meet as she transitions from high school to college, but that would almost be too superficial of a reading. “Lady Bird” and “The Florida Project” didn’t win any of the Oscars they were nominated for on Sunday, but their legacies are secure as part of a growing trend to break the mold of the old coming-of age model. In doing so, have become more authentic in regards to how the characters view family, class, and themselves.
Socially conscious, class-based movies are not new to cinema. After the end of World War II, Italy stripped its filmic style down to its bare bones through the nation’s “neo-realist” movement. Movies like “Rome, Open City”, “Bicycle Thieves,” and “Umberto D” allowed for audiences to enter the spaces and lives of social classes that they had previously never experienced before. Now 70 years later, American cinema has joined the tradition of emphasizing social and racial class divides.
Much like the rich tradition of socially conscious pictures, the coming of age movie can be traced back to the ‘50s, with Nicholas Ray’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” in which James Dean played an aimless, melodramatic teenager who repetitiously claims that no one understands him.
At the end of the decade, Francois Truffaut shook the cinematic world with “The 400 Blows,” a semi-autobiographical depiction of his life as a child growing up on the streets of Paris. Fast forward to the ‘80s, and the genre is in full swing with John Hughes’ industrial additions to the canon — “The Breakfast Club,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and “Sixteen Candles.” In comparison with more recent coming-of-age stories in cinema, these stories seem too fluid with picture-perfect endings and conflict that isn’t really conflict at all.
Most conflict is internal in these films as characters must deal with their own inner feelings before reacting to what is going on around them. Ferris Bueller’s only real conflict is to make sure he gets home on time; his buddy Cameron’s real conflict is with a straw-man father figure.
Such vanilla suburban struggles are out of sync with modern times. In a new era for the coming-of-age story, characters are forced to grow up due to the situations that they find themselves in, class struggles chief among them.
One of the films that showcases this idea of the “forced coming-of-age” story is Sean Baker’s latest humanist feature, “The Florida Project.” The story centers on six-year-old Moonee, a girl bouncing from motel to motel on the outskirts of Orlando with her mom who also bounces from job to job with no luck of finding a steady income. Moonee is enlisted by her mom to help sell cheap, wholesale fragrances to wealthy patrons of nearby resorts in hopes of making a few bucks to make rent and eat food that month. Moonee shouldn’t have to work with her mom to make rent, but due to her mother’s poor,, short-sighted decisions, alongside the latent results of the 2008 financial crisis, the grunt of the work falls on Moonee. When she’s not helping her mom, Baker’s camera playfully follows Moonee and other “hidden homeless” kids who grow up in motels. They walk down the block for ice cream, go swimming in the public pool, and occasionally get into the mischief of typical kids.
But unlike Ferris Bueller, Moonee’s immediate future is not in her own hands. Halley, Moonee’s mother, has the terribly difficult task of trying to control her own life while attempting to raise Moonee in a stable environment. Halley eventually falls down a slippery slope of unemployment alongside poor financial decisions, which ultimately leads to her involvement in prostitution. While Moonee has no say in this, she suffers the worst of it. As class mandates these stories, sometimes the outcomes aren’t as cozy as John Hughes imagined.
Class provides a very different sort of backdrop to “Lady Bird.” The film opens up with Christine (Saoirse Ronan, whose character has self-dubbed herself “Lady Bird”), and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) emotionally experiencing the end of an audiobook recording of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath.” Immediately following this tender moment, mother-daughter tension sets in as Lady Bird throws herself out of the moving car. It’s a jolt of an opening that establishes Lady Bird’s contempt for her family; the rest of the movie elaborates on it. As the opening quote makes clear, Lady Bird must try to reconcile the idea that she and her family are poor but that she also attends a Catholic high school with the upper-echelon of Sacramento. After a while, Lady Bird stops telling people that she lives on the “wrong side of the tracks” and just starts lying about where she lives. While Lady Bird experiences the normal coming-of-age issues like teenage sexuality and preparing for college, her working class status is where her real growing pains lie.
As Lady Bird applies for colleges on the East Coast, her mother wants her to stay close to home for financial reasons, but her father secretly fills out her financial aid forms for her just asking that she doesn’t tell her mom. After finding out about this, her mother becomes infuriated, even refusing to speak to Lady Bird for the foreseeable future. While some coming-of-age stories are centered on simply just getting into a college (Cameron Sawyer’s “Tim Timmerman” comes to mind), director Greta Gerwig’s film deals with the actual issues that arise when families must reconcile the growing higher education costs and the rifts that come with that. While Molly Ringwald’s stereotypical character in the “The Breakfast Club” must wrestle with her own insecurities, Lady Bird must deal not only with her own insecurities as a high school girl, but also those of her parents as they wrestle with their own realizations of their place in society.
However, it’s also important to note just how much we need these types of representational stories in contemporary cinema. As Viktor Shklovsky says in his essay “Art as Technique”: “Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life; it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” The movies have always been a space where the audience can become immersed in a life other than their own and empathize. We desperately need Moonee and Lady Bird’s stories now in such a dichotomized time in American culture (much in the same way we needed the neo-realism movement after WWII). It’s through these artistic measures that we can start to understand and empathize with everyone from every side of the train tracks.
“Lady Bird” and “The Florida Project” are not the first to start this trend (2017’s Best Picture winner “Moonlight” is another great example) but they solidify the idea of a “forced” coming-of-age story, one uniquely attuned to modern times. As America wrestles with its generational divide — issues of race, class and gender confront past and present eras’ standards — it’s hard to imagine this trope will go away anytime soon.