Christine (Saoirse Ronan), a teenager attending a Catholic school in Sacramento, insisting that everyone call her Lady Bird. She never explains the reason behind the name, but she probably imagines it conjures a person of importance like the former first lady. In reality, her life is about as pedantic as Hank Hill’s dog of the same name. It’s a goofy name, but it’s the one she wants to have.
And there is power in a name. Something about a good name can give you a feeling of being important or cultured. It’s why titles are so important to people. The lure of a name that is not what everyone calls you is something I relate to as I’ve long spent years going by James online and even to some people while I’ve always gone by my middle name, Blake.
It started off as my byline. I liked the sound of it. There was a cadence to it, first, middle, last, all five letters, first two one syllable, the last two syllables. But it went to my head.I liked this idea of James the writer, a cool academic type who could weave words into clever little pieces. When I started getting close to people through my writing, I never told them everyone calls me Blake.
Lady Bird dives into those lies we tell ourselves and try to present to the world about who we are and how people should take us seriously. It can lead to burning people close to us, hanging out with the wrong crowd, tensions with the family, and a yearning for something exciting and interesting to happen while dealing with the mundanity of normal life as a young person filled with fantastical notions of what life after high school will be.
Going by a different name online and in writing lead me down a path much less contentious than the one Lady Bird takes, but her experience and insecurities mirror a lot of my own experiences, albeit most of mine happened in college instead of high school (I was homeschooled, which might explain the delayed experience).
I transferred into Baylor University from the local community college. I spent most of my life in Waco. Plenty of Waco people love the idea of going to Baylor, I went more out of necessity. I had good enough academics to get scholarships at most places but living expenses/traveling was where I realized my ambitions for going anywhere too far would probably put too much of a strain on my family, especially being the oldest sibling. My parents and I talked about it in generally vague terms but I got the sense it would make the most sense to stay home and commute to college and I liked the Journalism and Film programs there.
From day one it was clear to me that I was an outsider. Here I was going to one of the premier private schools in the country, but I lived at home on the other side of town, drove a Buick LeSabre older than one of my siblings, and found myself rarely connecting with anyone I met around my age. I saw myself as a serious student and academic and tried to present myself as such. Hence the appeal of going by James as a writer.
I get it when Christine insists on being called Lady Bird and whines about Sacramento whilst longing for adult life in the northeast. You grow up in a place and have an uneventful childhood and you put on an act of how circumstances are holding you back or that you could be living an amazing life in some big city on the other side of the country.
Lady Bird spends most of the film lying in an attempt to be accepted by a boy she thinks is cute or the the popular girl who is with the “in” crowd. Some of these lies are more egregious than others and leads to many moments where she doesn’t stand up for who she is or what she believes in order to be accepted by others. It’s a lie she tells herself because she cannot stand the idea of who she is being all there is.
This idea is encapsulated in a conversation between Christine and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). Marion waits outside a dressing room as Christine comes in and out with different outfits for the prom. Marion isn’t as supportive about an outfit as Christine wants and the conversation escalates. Christine expresses that her mother’s lack of support makes her feel like her own mother doesn’t like her as a person. Marion declares “I only want you to be the best version of yourself” to which Christine replies “What if this is the best version of myself?”
That’s it. All the lies to fit in, all the relational conflicts, all the fronts you put on just to try to create what you think is the best version of yourself in summed up in one exchange. What if your true self is the best version of who you are? What if plain, boring old you is all there is? What if the best me is not James the immaculate writer and deep academic but Blake the dorky, flawed human being who is just as messed up as everyone else on the planet.
I get the sense that a lot of people respected James the writer, but I’m not convinced that’s the best me. For a long time, I thought it was, I thought a name change and maybe a new city might bring that. But, as Sam Phillips sings: “It’s easy to change your name, but hard to change your life.” Trying to be James didn’t make me any less Blake, it only made me blind that I was trying to deny the best of who I could be, warts and all.
That Lady Bird is able to tease this all out is a testament to how powerfully depicts the deep human insecurity of wanting to be loved and accepted not simply for who we are but what we would like ourselves to be. But if we cannot love and accept ourselves, how can we expect it from others?
We cannot reconcile who we want to be with how boring we are in reality. We pine for a life that will never come, chase after the mirage of being one of the most interesting people in the world. Instead, we should come to accept who we are and what we have been given. And what all of us are given is a family and a name.
© James Blake Ewing 2017