High school blues

29 April 2018

I recently saw both Lady Bird and Love, Simon, two movies that focus on the difficulties of being a teenager and navigating high school. They’re both good movies - not to skip too far ahead, but in my opinion Lady Bird is actually a great movie - and their overlapping topics and time in theaters makes a comparison feel natural.

Let’s start with Love, Simon. The plot is straightforward: Simon Spier, played by Nick Robinson, is a closeted high school senior living in a suburb of Atlanta. He has a loving family, a close group of friends, is doing fine at school and is looking forward to attending college next fall. While Simon’s community isn’t overtly homophobic, there aren’t many openly gay students around, so Simon starts covertly corresponding with the gay author of an anonymous post on a blog about the school. A socially-inept and incredibly horny moron named Martin (Logan Miller) finds his emails by accident and immediately blackmails Simon into setting him up with Simon’s hot friend Abby (Alexandra Shipp). In classic teenage-movie style, Simon doesn’t handle the situation particularly well, friendships get bungled, tears are shed but in the end everyone ends up happy.

It’s a funny, heartwarming movie that handles a complicated topic pretty well. I liked it. But as I watched, I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was all thoroughly fake. It’s not the characters or the writing or the performances - those are all good. It’s the world they live in: an impossibly pristine, polished paradise. Simon’s neighborhood looks amazing. All his beautiful friends live in charming houses and their parents seem like charming people. Every adult has a great job and every child has a shining future. Simon’s parents, played by Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel, are deeply in love and absurdly attractive.

These issues go beyond the typical Hollywood practice of putting good looking people on screens. The daily stresses of life are ignored; characters live completely idyllic lives. There are several scenes where Simon grabs breakfast with his family before going to school. In these scenes, the air is two parts hazy sunlight and one part cozy parental love; the family lazily trades quips about the quality of Simon’s little sister’s pancakes before Simon finally heads off. It’s absurd - I’m not sure if this was supposed to be relatable, but my brother, sister and I all went to a high school that started at 7:50, so we had to be in the car by 7:20 and usually started hating each other before 7. We all had our own lives and own things to deal with. Nobody was making pancakes.

Which leads me to Lady Bird. While Love, Simon tries to focus the audience on the plot by portraying the world the characters live in as completely perfect and therefore somehow uninteresting, Lady Bird is largely about the ugliness of the adult world colliding with teenage solipsism.

Lady Bird is the story of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) making her way through senior year while her family struggles with financial issues. Unlike Love, Simon, Lady Bird isn’t very plot-driven; like To Kill A Mockingbird, it tells a coming-of-age story as a series of related episodes strung together by common themes and tensions. Each episode is poignant and they slowly build up the story of Lady Bird’s year. She joins the theater program, where she meets a boy, who she dates for a while. She falls in with a more popular crowd and it alienates her old friends. Her popular friends turn out to be assholes and she reconciles with her previous friends. And so on. Meanwhile, her dad loses his job, her brother moves in and out of the house, her mom stresses about affording college and her friends struggle with their own issues.

Lady Bird doesn’t live in a world of beautiful people in charming houses. Her best friend struggles with weight; her boyfriend discovers he’s gay and breaks down at the thought of telling his Reagan-loving family. (Lady Bird is set in late 2002 - occasionally we get glimpses of the charged pre-Iraq political climate.) People don’t always rise to the occasion in Lady Bird’s world - another friend’s dad is terminally ill, and he uses the illness as an excuse to act like a jaded, detatched asshole.

Beyond just the charmed lives the characters do or do not lead, what separates the two movies is whether or not the outside world is allowed to affect the teenage protagonists. Love, Simon eliminates this possibility: the plot is driven solely by the teenagers’ inner world because the outside world is perfect. Lady Bird offers a much more honest answer: high school was never the protected place movies like Love, Simon sell it to be. In one scene, Lady Bird’s mom comes into her bedroom and tells her she has to dress more respectably at school because there’s an outside chance the parents of a classmate might hire her father. The scene isn’t even really about class - it’s more focused on Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother. But that one scene expresses how complicated high school is much better than all of Love, Simon.

There’s probably a much more political reading of these two movies that calls Love, Simon bourgeois propaganda, a triumph of a rich white conception of gayness, blah blah blah. I think that’s all a bit much - it’s a totally reasonable artistic decision for Love, Simon to focus on Simon’s experience at the exclusion of other issues. Not every work of art needs to be about every social ill. That said, I wish the people behind Love, Simon hadn’t hidden their movie away in Leave It To Beaver land. Lady Bird grapples with a much richer understanding of life than Love, Simon, and it’s a much richer movie as a result.

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