The Phantom Menace Might Be My Favorite

Or, how I learned to stop hating George Lucas so much

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My earliest memory of Star Wars is from the late 90s when my Dad got the new Special Edition boxed set for Christmas. It was 20 years after the original Star Wars film was released in 1977, and George Lucas had decided to celebrate by Frankensteining a bunch of (at the time) modern CGI into the films. To quote Douglas Adams, “This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” Making changes 20 years later is a tough sell for any film, but for a film like Star Wars that was famous for its special effect techniques, the new visuals felt like they were from a different universe. The old and new never really gelled. Unsurprisingly, kicking off a new trilogy just a couple of years later stuffed with digital effects felt like another attack on the films that people fell in love with in the first place. The Phantom Menace was has remained a favored punching bag for the fandom ever since.

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I’ve always had a complicated relationship with the prequels as a whole. I was young enough when The Phantom Menace came out that I didn’t have a critical bone in my body. It wasn’t just a movie either, the staying power of Star Wars has been its ability and willingness to flood the market with licensing deals. Darth Maul’s face was plastered on every consumer product imaginable, half of our toys were somehow associated with Star Wars, and I made it about 15 books deep into a series about Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan that was set before Episode I. Prequel Star Wars was the air that I breathed, but somewhere around the release of Attack of the Clones it started to sour. There were so many cringey lines of dialogue, and it was becoming clear that Lucas had no idea how to write young Darth Vader as a compelling character. (At the time I just blamed Hayden Christensen for being terrible, but I don’t think he was entirely at fault.) The whole thing was understood to be a train wreck and none of us could look away. Star Wars became a punchline, and The Phantom Menace became shorthand for everything that was wrong with the series. Yet I find myself in the strange position, 20 years after The Phantom Menace first graced the screen, of regarding it with incredible fondness. If you hate it I don’t feel a strong need to argue you out of that opinion, but I do think some of the most common criticisms are misplaced.

The most frequent gripe about the film seems to be the use of computerized effects, a criticism the new Disney films nimbly try to avoid by stuffing every behind-the-scenes photo with as many physical props as possible. It’s not a complaint that’s ever carried much weight for me though. Remember, I didn’t start watching Star Wars until after Han stopped shooting first. I still, to this day, have not seen the original films in their unaltered analog glory. I’ve just seen the comparison clips of a windowless cloud city and a barren looking sarlacc pit. Most of my experiences with Star Wars have included weird computer graphics, at least in the prequels the special effects stay fairly consistent. And in 1999, it made sense to embrace the latest technology available. Star Wars was a revelation in the 70s and 80s precisely because it pushed the envelope visually. While the digital additions to the original trilogy feel jarring and unnecessary, I don’t think embracing new technology was the wrong decision for The Phantom Menace.

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Even now, it’s only the small details in the effects work that I really find distracting: the flat-looking plains of Naboo or cityscapes that seem too simple. Big set-pieces like the pod race are still thrilling, and I’m pleasantly surprised at how satisfying it still is to watch digital battle droids get carved up like butter. Even Jar Jar feels like less of an egregious error than he did then. In a world where Gollum, Dobby, and Groot are household names, it’s hard to remember a time when a digital character with a weird voice was such a novelty. He deserves much of the ridicule that he has received — the weird speech pattern is annoying and he has WAY too much screen time — but the impulse to create a digital character wasn’t a complete miscalculation. It’s hard to imagine the pitch meeting where naming a muppet with a speech impediment the greatest Jedi sounded like a good idea either, yet weirdly that one worked out for them.

And where do people get off complaining about the plot being boring? Yes, the fact that the opening crawl literally begins with “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute” is still unintentionally hilarious. But the movie is not about trade policy, it’s all just a cover for planetary invasion. Qui-Gon remarks in in the opening scene that he senses “an unusual amount of fear for something as trivial as this trade dispute.” QUI-GON SHARES YOUR DISREGARD FOR TRIVIAL TRADE DISPUTES. This is a story about Natalie Portman being an awesome queen and taking back her planet from an overwhelming opponent. Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi are a Jedi’s Jedi dream team, and two of the most exciting characters in the entire trilogy. Even if I have problems with how Anakin is handled in the prequels, that’s largely the fault of the later films. His virgin birth origin story and subsequent invention of C-3PO still drive me crazy, but if you want to get rid of the pod race you’ll have to pry it from my cold, lifeless hands. There’s a definite loss of momentum when our heroes travel to Coruscant, but Senator/Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine also ends up having a more satisfying character arc across 3 films than Darth Vader does, so maybe it isn’t time wasted after all. And the climactic three (four?) pronged assault to retake Naboo is fantastic, give or take some Jar Jar Binks.

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Star Wars is at its best when it inspires wonder. The Phantom Menace did that for me. Darth Maul’s second lightsaber blade blew my mind. The activation of the battle droid army was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Liam Neeson made sticking a lightsaber into a blast door feel like a spiritual experience. Even Jar Jar’s stupid comic relief moments are as burned into my memory as any other line in this film. I watched The Phantom Menace when I was still too young to question it, and it was mine, and to a certain extent that never goes away. When watching it with my 4-year-old this week, he blurted out just after the pod race, “Anakin Skywalker can fix things! And when he grows up he can be a Jedi!” and I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, things will eventually take a tragic turn for Anakin (from both a character and a casting perspective) but in this moment the world feels young and alive and full of potential. What’s not to love about that?


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Learning to Lose with Inside Out

Some stories are so effective at establishing a fully-realized world that on first look the plot seems incidental. J.R.R. Tolkien, writer of Lord of the Rings and known for creating languages first and figuring out the story later, often leaves the reader feeling that his Middle Earth boasts countless stories that were never included in a novel. It may not seem like an obvious comparison, but I feel the same way about Inside Out. There are playful hints that every character’s head contains a hidden, bustling control room. The central conceit of emotions battling for influence, each of them imbued with a unique appearance and personality, is a rich storytelling device, but it is anchored by an extremely focused narrative about one pivotal week in a child’s life. It would have been easy to jump around between different character’s heads throughout the film, but maintaining focus on Riley proves to be an effective choice. Staying within an isolated mind allows the story to drill down into the difficulty of living through major transitions.

My family went through a big move from Colorado to Maryland when I was 11, so there are aspects of Riley’s experience with moving from Minnesota to California at the same age that feel particularly familiar to me. The inhospitable new house and awkward social interactions are presented pretty much the way that I remember living through them. Part of that familiarity also comes from the film’s realistic style; there is nothing fantastical or exaggerated about the outer world of Inside Out. The whole film is beautifully animated, but there aren’t any futuristic robots or Tokyo-inspired architecture in this version of San Francisco à la Big Hero 6. For as crazy and inventive as Inside Out’s visuals get within Riley’s mind, there isn’t a moment in the film where those sensibilities bleed into the “real” world. Without the frequent cutaways to fire shooting out of Anger’s head or a literal train of thought jumping its tracks, Riley’s unhappy introduction to San Francisco would be more cringeworthy than entertaining.

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The fog that Riley finds herself slipping into, as sunny expectations for a new home are doused in cold reality, stayed with me for about a year after moving. A change in scene doesn’t mean you become a new person, but it does force you to reintroduce yourself to the world. It felt like a lot of my assumptions about myself had become dislodged and I was starting again from scratch. For Riley, moving doesn’t necessarily mean that she no longer values having friends or playing hockey, but those things have to be rebuilt. New friendships have to be developed over time, and playing hockey now means going through tryouts again and adjusting to a new team. Even the pizza in San Francisco is weird and unappealing. There’s a loss of the comfortable and familiar that’s inherent in a such a major life change.

In response to this jarring shake-up of Riley’s world, Sadness begins instinctively to take on an outsized role in headquarters, affecting old memories and producing new ones that reflect her somber blue. As the one in charge of making Riley as happy as possible (or at least that’s how she perceives her mandate), Joy is beyond perplexed that Sadness is ruining everything and acts quickly to stifle her. It’s a response that I can easily relate to. But while Joy desperately wants to avoid allowing Riley to feel sad, she doesn’t have a sufficient answer to the life changes taking place either. Her most frequent tactic is to avoid painful situations entirely or to create distractions, but that leaves emotions like Anger and Fear picking up a lot of slack to cover over the hurt. In my own life I often find myself fending off emotions I don’t like with video games or social media, anything that allows me to turn off part of my brain and retreat from whatever is upsetting me. But there’s not a lot of resolution to be found as long as I keep running from pain or reacting to it in anger. The wound doesn’t heal.

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It’s in dealing with loss head-on that Sadness finally shows herself to be completely essential. Because she doesn’t shy away from things that are upsetting, much to Joy’s chagrin, she is capable of incredible empathy. In a pivotal moment, Riley’s long-forgotten imaginary friend, Bing Bong, loses a special reminder of his time as Riley’s constant companion. Joy tries desperately to cheer him up, making goofy faces and promising that they can fix everything, but Sadness reacts with startling directness.  “I’m sorry that they took your Rocket. They took something that you loved. It’s gone, forever.” Joy is appalled, but Bing Bong responds warmly and begins to recount old stories about his adventures with Riley. Something has been lost. It is sad. But it was wonderful while it lasted. Bing Bong cries for a moment, comforted by Sadness, then gets up with increased resolve. Joy is blindsided, and begins to realize that Sadness has a role to play after all.

I have a couple of family members in failing health, and it’s starting to feel like I’m watching my childhood fade away. Many of the memories we’ve made over the years will likely be just that soon, memories. In the midst of this, I feel a troubling temptation to be distracted, to not taint better times with sadness by thinking about them now. That’s where I find Inside Out’s climactic visual of a single, multicolored globe so affecting, the complexity of joy and sadness contained in a single memory. When Sadness is finally allowed to work the way it’s supposed to, it isn’t in opposition to happiness. There is joy and healing when we allow ourselves to be sad together. At its core, Inside Out is a story about loss and how we are often bad at dealing with it on our own. Being sad is not a solution in itself, but in trying to avoid it entirely we often cut ourselves off from others, one of the most important forms of comfort available to us. There’s an unseen drama playing out inside each of us, but incredible help is available when we stop hiding it away in our own heads.


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2 Guardians 2 Galaxy: A Family Affair

I am not known for having hot takes. Often my takes are barely even warm.

I have unique thoughts all the time, but I usually hide them in a corner until the commotion has died down, the crowd has started to disperse, and I have a general sense that a few people already agree with me. So here’s one of my warmest of warm takes about a movie that came out 2 years ago: I think Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is better than the original.

According to every aggregate measure of movie goodness that I am aware of, the original Guardians of the Galaxy is considered superior. Rotten Tomatoes, Metacritic, and IMDb all give lower marks to Vol. 2, though both are generally rated favorably. “Vol 2’s action-packed plot, dazzling visuals, and irreverent humor add up to a sequel that’s almost as fun - if not quite as thrillingly fresh - as its predecessor,” reads the almighty Critics Consensus on Rotten Tomatoes. A similar thread runs through various reviews, that Vol. 2 doesn’t quite live up its predecessor and that the humor feels more forced. I don’t intend to defend the sequel by just dunking on the first one. As I wrote last week, I still really enjoy it. My preference for the second film isn’t because it corrects missteps from the first one. What it does instead is build off of that solid foundation to achieve greater heights. (There will be spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 ahead. If you haven’t seen it yet, go watch it on Netflix first.)

Because so much work has already been done establishing the team, Vol. 2 is able to spend much more time mapping out an antagonist. I don’t think Ronan the Accuser is anyone’s favorite part of Guardians of the Galaxy, but he also didn’t need to be. He provides an overly self-serious sci-fi tone that is easily subverted by goofier than expected protagonists. Ronan is at his best when a raccoon is crashing a spaceship into him or Star-Lord is challenging him to a dance-off. It’s a shame he spends so much time growling Evil Villain catch-phrases on his spaceship before the finale. Any scene with Ronan in it where he isn’t utterly confounded that a bunch of idiots are beating him is a bit boring in hindsight. Vol. 2 has secondary villains that are cut from similar cloth, but they’re treated with less seriousness and are mostly around to cause problems for our heroes as the real threat is slowly unveiled: Ego.

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Ego the Living Planet is a difficult character to get a handle on, but James Gunn makes two important choices as writer and director of the film to make him compelling. First by casting a very bearded Kurt Russell, disarming and personable but with a chilling disregard for others; and secondly, by diverging from the comics to make him Peter Quill’s (Star-Lord’s) father. The Guardians are all orphans, widowers, or outcasts, so introducing a father-figure provides fertile territory to explore. What draws them together, as much as their personalities may clash, is a shared longing for community that has been taken from them. Despite some initial suspicions, the offer of a real family proves too enticing for Peter to pass up.

Peter’s mixtapes play an important role in defining the tone of the films, and Ego’s introduction adds an interesting dimension. After spending so much time alone with his Walkman, it’s touching to see Peter connect with another being over something that matters deeply to him. He’s spent plenty of time indoctrinating the other Guardians, but Ego is the first person he’s met in the films who is already familiar with the music. So it’s all the more insidious that Ego tries to use one of Meredith’s mixtape songs to justify himself as his more sinister ambitions become apparent. He quotes lyrics to Peter from “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)” by Looking Glass, “Brandy, you're a fine girl / What a good wife you would be / But my life, my lover, my lady is the sea,” and it becomes increasingly clear as the movie progresses that by “the sea” Ego really means...himself. As a father, he does seem to derive joy from his interactions with Peter, but in the same way that Darth Vader does around Episode V.  He’s really looking for someone to rule the galaxy with, not a relationship that will distract from his singular goal. He is interested in people until they stop being useful.

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As Peter reunites (and falls out again) with the father he never knew, the film also spends time getting to know the man who actually raised him. Yondu is a memorable minor character in the first movie, but becomes a pivotal figure and a Guardian in his own right in the sequel. As he’s the one who originally kidnapped Peter from Earth, Yondu is initially cast in a fairly negative light. He doesn’t possess a particularly affectionate personality, but it gradually becomes obvious through what Yondu is willing to sacrifice for him just how much he cares about Peter. Though he is also living with the consequences of past mistakes, his crew’s mutiny and the loss of his ship is a direct result of him repeatedly covering for and protecting Peter. When Rocket is stuck with Yondu for much of the film’s second act, he is surprised to find how similar he is to the rest of the Guardians. Their brash confidence is covering over a whole lot of brokenness and abandonment, and the fear of being hurt again. But while the fledgling group is often shown to still be squabbling because of insecurity and distrust of one another, Yondu has moved beyond reactionary self-interest. When called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice, he doesn’t hesitate. That’s what Dads are supposed to do.

NEBULA: All any of you do is yell at each other. You're not friends.                                                                        DRAX: You're right. We're family.

There’s plenty more that can be said about the film as a whole. Gamora and Nebula finally work through their shared hellscape of a childhood and start learning how to be sisters, a relationship that does far more to set up Infinity War than any Thanos cameo. Every minute that Baby Groot is onscreen is a gift, a tree version of what I get to experience every day with young kids. Mantis’ naivety and Drax’s complete lack of filter pair beautifully. The visuals throughout are stunning. I like the pop song soundtrack treatment even better the second time around. Does every joke in Vol. 2 land? No, not all of them. But the emotional moments really do. Those powerful final scenes are as good as anything that has come before, as Peter realizes, “that thing you're searching for your whole life, sometimes it's right there by your side all along and you don't even know it.” The perfect Cat Stevens song plays in the background. Fireworks fill the void of space. The man who thought himself beyond redemption is mourned as the hero that he has finally became. I wipe a tear from my eyes as the credits roll.

More of the same? Not as fresh as the original?  That’s up to you, don’t take my word for it, and certainly don’t take Rotten Tomatoes’. But when I watch this movie, I see nothing but growth and tremendous potential. I hope Volume 3 is even better.


Random Aside: While trying to research the difference in screen time for each character in Volumes 1 and 2, I accidentally discovered IMDb’s MCU Movies Screen Time Breakdown for every Marvel film so far, and it is FASCINATING.

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The Guardians Gamble

As Endgame looms large, a look back at an early Marvel milestone

The Avengers caught the world by surprise in 2012. Superhero movies had been growing in popularity for several years, but the fledgling Marvel Studios had just managed to produce the 3rd-highest grossing film of all time, and the highest gross at the time for a film not directed by James Cameron. (What deal with the devil did that guy make by the way?)  A series of stand-alone films had culminated in an unprecedented superhero team-up that somehow managed to stick the landing. Marvel’s film experiment was paying off, and all eyes were on them to see if The Avengers was an anomaly, or if they could keep the magic going.

Sequels for Marvel’s most bankable solo properties (Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America) were quickly announced, but they weren’t content to rely on the same six characters indefinitely. With the Spider-Man and X-Men licenses still tied up at other studios, Marvel Studios mastermind Kevin Feige was eager to increase exposure for lesser-known characters from the pages of Marvel comics. So, sandwiched between Captain America’s solo showcase The Winter Soldier and their hotly anticipated Avengers sequel, Marvel announced a surprising debut: Guardians of the Galaxy

It is difficult to recall in a post-baby-Groot world just how meaningless the words “Guardians of the Galaxy” were in 2014 before the first trailer dropped. Iron Man may not have been well known outside of comic shops before Robert Downey Jr. put on the suit, but he had at least been an established character in the lore for decades. This iteration of the Guardians of the Galaxy that Marvel wanted to adopt had first appeared as a comic in 2008, and had been well reviewed but not widely popular. The Avengers had established Marvel Studios as a powerful brand, and they were ready to take a gamble on it. For this film they weren’t shooting for characters that people already loved and would buy a ticket to go see, they were looking for characters that audiences would fall in love with after “Marvel Studios Presents…” got them into the theater.

So, how did they do it? How did a scrappy team of misfits that no one had ever heard of become as popular as Captain America and Thor? There were many reasons, but none more important than the Disney Marketing Machine. The first trailer began with a joke about how even the aliens in the film have never heard of Star Lord before pivoting to literal rap sheets for each of the five characters. The marketing team knew they were starting from scratch in terms of name recognition, and they fully embraced it. A series of buzz worthy trailers followed, and Target stores were a sea of Rocket and Groot toys well before the August release date. Even fantastic marketing can’t save a bummer of a movie, but in the case of Guardians that publicity was the difference between what might have ended up a critical darling or modest hit but instead became a mainstream juggernaut. They may have been unknowns at the start of the year, but by July most people in the country had at least an inkling that some kind of space raccoon movie was coming soon. And thanks to those trailers, we all had “Hooked on a Feeling” stuck in our heads too.

The Guardians of the Galaxy soundtrack was an incredible feat in its own right. It was the first soundtrack in history with no original music to top the Billboard 200 albums chart. Every single song on the album had already been released during the 60s and 70s, but it still managed to go platinum anyway. The album’s tracks are from the mixtape Peter’s mother made him before she passed away, which writer & director James Gunn expertly weaves throughout the narrative. “Come and Get Your Love” doesn’t just play for the audience’s benefit during our introduction to Peter Quill/Star Lord, that’s what he’s actually listening to on his Walkman while he dances around and plays Indiana Jones with some space treasure. The songs were written into the original script, and are often shown to be playing through someone’s headphones or the ship’s speaker system. It’s an inventive approach, and also helps to ground the film while it spends most of its time with strange creatures in otherworldly locations. The songs become more than nostalgia or background noise, they’re truly character moments.

Another great innovation from Guardians was the shift away from always beginning with an origin story, which has since been reflected in other Marvel franchises like Spider-Man and Black Panther. Rather than focusing on one character becoming a superpowered hero, the film is structured more like The Avengers, with a disparate group of already powerful and established beings who are forced to join forces and trust one another to defeat something bigger than all of them. The film jumps very quickly into building relationships between characters who are all meeting for the first time, and slowly teases out their backstories and personalities as they interact and frequently clash with one another. It requires a certain amount of filmmaker confidence to build your characters as you go, but it’s not without precedent. Han Solo and Chewbacca didn’t need an origin story either. (I have no additional comments about Solo: A Star Wars Story at this time.)

At the end of the day, it’s the strength of the characters that really sells the movie. Some of the personal idiosyncrasies would have been very easy to get wrong, like Groot only saying his own name or Drax not understanding metaphors and sarcasm, but the casting was spot on (especially Chris Pratt, at the time only known for Parks & Rec) and the script does a great job of playing the characters off of one another. Other than the Hulk, who isn’t known for scenes with dialogue, Rocket and Groot were the first Marvel heroes to be completely digital creations. It’s a testament to everyone involved that Rocket is one of the most charismatic characters on screen and Groot, with a total vocabulary of 5 words, gets one of the most emotional line deliveries of the movie. At a certain point while watching I forget that they’re computer generated creations, they’re every bit as important as any other character in the film. This helped pave the way for a film like Infinity War, where an all-digital Thanos gets more screen time than any other character. The film’s villain is a bit one-dimensional here and the infinity stone exposition can feel shoehorned into the script, but I could spend all day just watching the “12 percent of a plan” scene where the heroes sit in a circle and argue. It’s that core team dynamic that makes the film so entertaining.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a massive risk. It’s a testament to Kevin Feige that Marvel leaned into the concept so confidently, and to James Gunn that the film ended up being so enjoyable. The film and its sequel are popular entries in the Marvel universe, but have become a cultural phenomenon in their own right. My kids wander around the house with Star Lord dolls that spout Chris Pratt phrases, and his mask is as recognizable to them as Darth Vader’s. Disney theme parks are beginning to add Guardians of the Galaxy themed rides. Rocket is suiting up with Captain America and Iron Man in Avengers: Endgame later this week. One of my 4-year-old’s favorite songs is by Led Zeppelin because Marvel decided the latest Thor movie should have a Guardians aesthetic and put “Immigrant Song” in the fight scenes. My life is (slightly) different because the Guardians of the Galaxy got made. I like to think that it’s a little bit better this way.


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Former Kid, Raising Kids

“She doesn’t know how to help you and that frustrates her“

There are many behaviors that children make fun of their parents for before becoming guilty of the same things when they have kids of their own. The pressures of the role have a strange way of influencing our actions. For instance, this tweet that made me laugh and that I immediately sent to my wife:

I vaguely remember stuff like this happening when I was a kid, but I wasn’t thinking about my parents when I read it. I was thinking about all of the times that I’ve launched into my own tirade of righteous fury at the kids over something inconsequential before sheepishly caving when I come to my senses. I have become the caricature.

I had a similar experience watching Lady Bird for the first time. The titular character is a charismatic force of nature with a bad case of high school senioritis. She’s impulsive, resourceful, and straining with every fiber to break out of the mold her parents have set up for her, going so far as to adopt a name of her own invention. Her mom is nit-picky and overbearing, and the family is so concerned about finances that they won’t even consider the colleges their daughter is actually interested in. If this movie had come out when I was 16, my takeaway would have been something like, “yes, the trials of a high school senior are the most weighty and important imaginable. This aligns perfectly with reality!” I believe these were my exact thoughts while watching High School Musical 3 in theaters my senior year. (I alleged at the time that I was just there because my little sister needed a ride. This was a lie.)

FATHER LEVIATCH: Okay, Christine?

LADY BIRD: Lady Bird.

FATHER LEVIATCH: Is that your given name?

LADY BIRD: Yes.                

FATHER LEVIATCH: Why is it in quotes?

LADY BIRD: Well I gave it to myself. It’s given. To me, by me.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it is not a small thing to decide where you’ll spend the next 4+ years of your life and figure out what kind of person you are going to become. Everyone undergoes some version of this transformation as they mature, and it is often tumultuous and fraught with disappointment. But watching Lady Bird as an adult, and especially as a parent, I’m struck by how much of the story is actually happening at the margins.

The film takes place in Sacramento in 2002 and 2003, during the early stages of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In the various suburban homes that the characters inhabit, there’s often a TV on in the background showing footage of falling bombs. A lot of the human suffering in Sacramento plays out in a similar fashion. Layoffs, depression, broken bones, economic anxiety, it’s all there on screen if you’re paying attention, but the high schoolers often aren’t. When they do notice, it’s often with a sense of detached interest at new gossip fodder. The film’s score only swells during prom; the layoffs happen off screen. Even when something good happens, like Lady Bird’s best friend being cast as the lead in the musical, the main focus of the scene is firmly centered on Lady Bird only being selected for the chorus.

This trivialization of major issues throughout the film is by design, and is an interesting representation of how being 17 often feels. Even with kids as young as mine, there’s a familiarity to the emotional blinders Lady Bird is wearing. Marion (her mother) complains constantly about how Lady Bird doesn’t care about anyone but herself, and I find myself sympathizing with the mother more than I used to when watching a movie about a teenager. Few things are more frustrating than pointing out the obvious and being met with a blank stare. And I’m still at the stage of, “if you throw that at your brother, it will hurt him.” *child throws object while staring blankly*

When we are first introduced to Marion and Christine [Lady Bird], the dynamic between them appears to have become especially fraught. There’s an effortless affection between them that still shines through occasionally, like in the opening scene as they cry their way through a The Grapes of Wrath audiobook, but once the tape ends the wheels quickly come off.

As often happens at this stage of the parenting relationship, what used to be fairly straightforward instruction about choices and consequences has given way to extended conflicts. When kids are young, actions and consequences are pretty directly linked. If you run into a busy street your chances of being hit are pretty high. There are certainly advantages and disadvantages to picking a particular high school, but Marion’s exasperated “You’re telling me that you want to see someone knifed right in front of you?” is not as obvious of a result to any particular choice. When discussing things like jobs, careers, and colleges, there’s a lot more room for valid differences of opinion. Of course Lady Bird displays a fair amount of naivety about financial realities and it’s hard to stifle a laugh when she romanticizes Connecticut and New Hampshire as places “where writers live in the woods,” but the script doesn’t belittle her. It would have been easy for the filmmakers to take a side, to portray one of the characters as the villain of the other’s story, but I love the way that [writer and director] Greta Gerwig puts them both in the frame and lets them yell over each other.

Throughout their conflicts, I sympathize with Marion’s frustration at her daughter’s general lack of empathy. I often feel similar frustrations in my own parenting. But I can also see the flaws in her approach. It is good to confront your kids when they are being selfish so that they can develop self-awareness, but yelling at them doesn’t magically make them care more about other people. In fact, over time it has the unintended effect of making Lady Bird increasingly doubt whether her mom even likes her. When interacting with other characters Marion displays incredible warmth, but it doesn’t come through often in her interactions with her daughter. The tension between them is so consistent that they both default to being defensive.

Lady Bird does have breakthroughs of empathy, but they tend to occur when she is interacting with other characters and her guard isn’t up. Towards the end of the film she ends up in the hospital after drinking too much at a party, and when she wakes up a little boy is in the next bed with a bandage on his head and over one eye. The scene is completely free of dialogue, but for me this is when the entire film clicks into place. For one solemn moment, Christine/Lady Bird considers another person and is completely concerned about their own well being instead of her own. She’s finally able to escape her own ego, even if temporarily. It’s what her mom has been trying to get her to realize all along, and she just…stumbles into it.

But that’s how parenting works. You spend years planting, watering, and weeding, but you can’t make your kids grow. You do what you can to prepare them, but at a certain point they have to become their own person. Just like you became your own person not so long ago. Chances are they’ll have kids of their own to drive crazy before too long.


Lady Bird is available on Amazon Prime and Kanopy. Follow me on Twitter (@thoughtsfrmhead) or click “subscribe” if you’d like to read more.

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