we need to talk about lady bird's gay moment
The film has won acclaim and accolades for its depiction of female adolescence, but less has been said about its beautiful coming out scene.
Spoiler alert: we never find out why Lady Bird’s Lady Bird anointed herself that. We can guess, though: it pisses off her parents and there’s a neat sacrilege to a Catholic school student replacing “Christine” with the name of a bug. Plus, the film’s lead has all the skittish impatience of an insect known to make a bright stink as it readies for take-off.
Time can’t go fast enough for Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan, Oscar-nominated for this turn). She’s desperate to leave the wrong side of the tracks of Sacramento behind, she can’t wait to join an east coast literati where intelligence and wit become a balaclava to class, and she’s keen to have sex pretty soon. The drag of adolescence burdens her soul.
But for one long moment, somewhere around the beginning of the middle of the film, she stands still a long time. Greta Gerwig, making her directorial debut (also Oscar-nominated) lets the camera linger. If you don’t like spoilers, look away now.
Lady Bird’s fallen for Danny (Lucas Hedges), a clean-cut all-American good guy. He’s a cute face atop lanky limbs roaming about billowing slacks and neat plaid shirts. However, much like Christian Stovitz, the swaggering kind hunk of previous seminal coming-of-age movie Clueless, there’s a problem. Danny’s gay, and all the giddy frisson of school drama productions hasn’t only made its way to Lady Bird, but to someone else -- a boy!
Danny’s discovered making out with Greg in the quiet of a diner’s bathroom stall and is immediately ashamed and concerned. But Lady Bird rages. She cries. She plays Dave Matthews’ Band Crash Into Me on repeat while holding best friend Julie’s hand. Soon, Danny’s name is crossed off of the wall behind Lady Bird’s bed, she’ll have nothing to do with his falseness, and everything to do with the purposefully aloof shrug of pretension Kyle (Timothée Chalamet).
Though Lady Bird has relegated Danny to a dorky reminder of how little she used to know about love, Gerwig, who isn’t blinkered by youth’s tendency to fickle selfishness, draws him back in to the plot. He arrives at the coffee shop Lady Bird tells rich kids she works at under her mother Marion’s orders “to learn ‘responsibility’.” In actuality, she’s using the money earned to save for her college application. Nervous, Danny bickers about Marion, insisting “she’s warm but she’s also kind of scary.” Unable to calmly defend the parent she so regularly criticises, Lady Bird blurts out “YOU’RE GAY” and the tone immediately flips.
Hushed, Danny begs Lady Bird to keep his secret, because "I’m so ashamed of all of it. It’s going to be bad and I just need a little bit of time to figure out how I’m going to tell my mum and dad.” Danny’s openness breaks through Lady Bird’s tough carapace. Seeing how scared he is, she promises not to tell and when he leans into her, sobbing, she holds him. This is when the camera lingers. The sobs get louder, and still, the camera stays fixed on the pair. Lady Bird holds Danny still.
The moment is radical; Gerwig has created a gay character in a teen movie who holds some nuance. Other seminal teen films - Clueless and Mean Girls, which this will rightly be filed next to in future - have little use for gay characters. Once they’ve proven the female lead’s naivety, all they’re good for is campy approvals of outfits or distributions of sassy one-liners.
More is in store for Danny, who has wilfully mislead Lady Bird, playing up to her desires as much as she’s projected them. He’s a vulnerable guy coming out to himself as well as the world.
Until this moment, for Lady Bird, life is only worth living if she gets away from everything she’s known it to be, as soon as possible. Death peppers the film, with at least four off-camera characters dying before old age. The deaths sharpen the severity of Lady Bird’s opening tumble from a moving car, taken because she can’t stand to exist in that moment any longer, and highlight her wasted temper. Why must she wish her life away? Why must she lash out at Marion, the person who gave her this life, who mirrors her passion for a verbal scrap? Doubtless, life will be easier for Lady Bird once she escapes her convent school. But when she’s confronted by someone who can honestly expect his life to imminently worsen, if only for a little while, her empathy swells. Her patience grows as she realises just how small her struggle has got.
We never find out if anyone else ever finds out about Danny’s sexuality. Yet he remains in the story, to offer Lady Bird (both the character and the film) messy friendship and necessary plot development.
Much of Lady Bird will touch people, because Gerwig has crafted believably nuanced characters working through their own traumas and faulty defence mechanisms. It’s a romance film like no other, centreing the warm and scary relationship between Lady Bird and Marion for the audience to behold and wince at in equal measure. And she also makes time to provide its queer moment a light and shade normally reserved for specifically packaged queer films like Call Me by Your Name, Moonlight and Beach Rats. Gerwigs sees queerness for the mess it is, rather than a check-box to tick or a narrative device to embarrass her lead.
A story of a young woman’s coming-of-age, so rare itself, is under no obligation to do right by its queer characters, but it’s all the more valuable that Gerwig gives Danny nuance. Because though so much has changed, even since when the film is set, queer people haven’t gained acceptance and equal rights in one fell swoop. It takes tiny nudges forward to get the ball rolling. It takes half-decent allies as well as the strident, preternaturally woke ones. And on the way there’s going to be a lot of trauma, and trouble, or even just the fear of either. It shouldn’t be that way, yet it also shouldn’t be that history -- however fictional -- gets the prestige of suggesting it never was that way.
Call Me by Your Name (which features again Chalamet as a reading-books-and-brooding-by-the-pool kind of guy, except, well, nicer) is by far the queer film of the year. But in Lady Bird and Danny’s hug, we have the queer moment of the year -- so much is wrapped up in one baggy-jumpered hug. And it’s about time.